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innovation

Be a student of human nature

people at Light Fest_2

Today we can all benefit by becoming students of human nature. Each day is filled with opportunities to improve how we relate to others. But we need to know what to look for in order to extract the most valuable lessons.

Mindful learning from daily experience can become a habit. These five questions help us diagnose what’s really going on:

Learn more_questions

ACTIVE LEARNING BY DESIGN

Most of the knowledge we need to do our work is learned informally. To thrive in an unpredictable world, we can make the most of these informal learning opportunities.

learn-to-learn

Above quote is from The Economist article: ” Lifelong learning is becoming an economic imperative

photo at top: “Run Beyond” by Angelo Bonello, Italy, taken at Light Fest 2017, Distillery District in Toronto

-Sharon VanderKaay

 

Design thinking at work

Learning Faster from Experience_16_1
An active learning approach to design thinking

Design thinking helps us get unstuck. It reveals hidden options so we can take action with greater confidence and impact.

Active learning (vs. passive learning) is a mindful approach to leveraging on-job experience.

When we combine active learning with design thinking, we have a powerful framework for continuous progress.

Learning Faster from Experience_vanderpalette

As the integration of AI grows in every kind of job, human-centric skills are in growing demand. But critical thinking, judgment and decision making are difficult to teach.

Design thinking offers an optimistic, strengths-based approach to learning. It works because it encourages our natural human curiosity. In essence, we can learn to design our way through messy situations at work—while staying one step ahead of the robots.

Here’s a slide summary of these concepts:

What questions should we be asking? Taking the “lug” out of luggage

luggage rejectionGame-changing ideas are often ignored, rejected or met with a shrug. How can better questions open eyes, hearts and minds to new ways of doing things?

My favorite example of rejection (followed by slow acceptance, then, “I can’t imagine the old way!”) is the introduction of wheeled luggage. Who needed this simple invention? As it turned out, everybody did. Would anyone buy a suitcase without wheels today? Well, maybe those folks who assembled the vintage collection I saw in a Chicago hotel lobby (photo above).

Each time my recipe for social learning is rejected, I remind myself of this story: 

Bernard D. Sadow had a bright idea while shuffling through U.S. customs on his way back home from a family vacation: What if…what if this suitcase had wheels?

Did weary travelers and eager retailers rise up and cheer when Bernie began pitching his liberating idea? Nope. At first he encountered only shrugs and naysayers.

For many months after receiving his patent in 1972, Bernie Sadow’s idea of a wheeled suitcase (pulled by a loose strap) was rejected. As he rolled his sample from meeting to meeting with various department stores, he was greeted with indifference. Eventually he sold his invention to Macy’s, and the market grew quickly as this story in The New York Times recounts.

But it wasn’t until 1987 that Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath invented the roll-aboard suitcase which was pulled in an upright position using a long handle. Plath at first sold his Rollaboard to crew members, then his invention became a hit with passengers who saw it in use by flight attendants.

The initial rejection of wheeled luggage demonstrates a pattern of clinging to the old, difficult way when a better way may be under our noses. What kinds of questions would have changed how people viewed such an opportunity for innovation? What questions would have exposed unmet needs?

As The New York Times reported in 2010:  “Mr. Sadow recalled the strong resistance he met on those early sales calls, when he was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said.”

Examples of design thinking questions that would have been eye-opening at the time:

  1. What are the trends in air travel and ground transport linkage (from travelers’ perspective)?
  2.  How could the experience of moving luggage be improved?
  3.  What gender (and other) assumptions about suitcases might be wrong?
  4.  Who makes suitcase buying decisions?
  5.  What compromises are travelers making WRT the use of suitcases? (dependence on porters, carts)

It’s worth noting the particular skills and attitudes Bernie needed to look beyond being burdened by the family suitcases, to seeing his wheeled luggage for sale at Macy’s: imagination, questioning norms, perseverance, sales and learning from experience.

Bernie Sadow took the “lug” out of luggage. His statue should be in every airport and train station. Homer Simpson (Season 26, Episode 12) identified “the guy who put wheels on luggage” as the greatest living inventor. It’s a stretch for us today to imagine how the concept of wheeled luggage could have been rejected. But this example helps us see how unasked questions continue to plague inventors and impede progress today.

-Sharon VanderKaay

How rough edges inspire innovation

Fifteen years ago, NDSM in Amsterdam Noord was at risk of becoming a boring, generic development. Today it is Europe’s largest broedplaats (breeding ground) for makers, inventors and artisans. NDSM is an enormous shipyard with a second life at the heart of an emerging economy.

NDSM_composite

NDSM werf in Amsterdam Noord

The booming era of shipbuilding at NDSM can be compared to the glory days of car building at the Packard Plant in Detroit. Workers in both cities endured hard lives in the factories, yet their jobs gave them some sense of security, purpose and belonging. While their industries were thriving, they were proud to be part of a bigger identity that gained worldwide respect.

That purpose-driven work is long gone. Our need today is for new jobs that are meaningful and sustainable; in other words, the future is about making and doing things of enduring value rather than a life of empty consumption.

In particular, what can developers and friends of Detroit’s Fisher Body Plant, Packard and other emotionally-charged industrial sites learn from the nature of work at NDSM and other emerging models? And how can my hometown of Detroit reflect its roots as a place for inventors?

In many ways NDSM shows us new, healthier ways of working in an innovation-friendly setting. This rough-edged creative habitat is the antidote to disturbing stories about “a world without work” and armies of job-replacing robots. The NDSM raises and responds to several pressing questions:

  • What is real job security today?
  • What is the best work setting to spark innovation?
  • How can we aim for more than merely a sustainable environment?

It’s unlikely that these answers will ever be found here:

anti-innovation

 

The polished, anonymous “office park” developments of the post-industrial era were known for killing any sense of identity while draining the creative energy out of its hapless victims. The resulting recipe for alienation, conformity, false illusion of predictability, and norm of complacency was not a recipe for innovation.

So how can a place help us thrive by creating new job opportunities, rather than to merely survive as consumers?

Below are five essential ingredients which draw on NDSM and the model pioneered in 1994 by Margie Zeidler at 401 Richmond St West in Toronto as well as other creative hubs such as Evergreen Brickworks.

401 Richmond_composite_crop

Life at 401 Richmond St. West and painting “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?”

 

1. ROUGH EDGES and RUST: When big new ideas are born, they are naturally messy, unpolished, imperfect and unfinished. Rough edges encourage thinking about possibilities. Polished places are hostile habitats for unconventional approaches.

_NDSM_c NDSM (23) _NDSM 3

NDSM werf

 

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Evergreen Brick Works

 

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Hearn Generating Station, Toronto during Luminato

 

2. ROOTS: Humans have an innate need to be part of something bigger and more enduring than themselves. Tangible historical connections have an effect on our mental health–they are not simply about being sentimental. Shiny office parks are depressing in part because they are rootless.

IMG_0910 NDSM 6

LEFT: Detroit Design Center  RIGHT: NDSM werf

 

Granville Island_composite_market

Granville Island, Vancouver, BC

 

3. IDENTITY: The NDSM not only has its own special character, it encourages 230 creatives to express their individual identity. The design of each studio has a different personality, yet the whole effect is pulled together by strong structural elements. These expressions spill over to enliven shared spaces (which would be forbidden in an office park).         

Netherlands Shipbuilding 1

NDSM_composite 2

NDSM werf

 

4. INTERACTION: The future of work and job security will be through human relationships and collaboration. The NDSM encourages idea development and fluid work arrangements by providing a variety of stimulating, changeable spaces that attract people with shared interests.  

worker diversity composite

LEFT: from the Diego Rivera mural at Detroit Institute of Arts   RIGHT: A face in the hood by Tyree Guyton at the Heidelberg Project, Detroit.

 

NDSM_composite 3

NDSM werf

 

5. SHARED OWNERSHIP: Whether through a formal shared ownership agreement (example: NDSM) or a sense of ownership instilled by the owners (example: 401 Richmond W) it is essential that people feel they have a personal stake in something that is enduring.   

NDSM 4

NDSM werf

Packard swan_sm_rightMy ideas for the Packard Plant combine respect for the past with the rough edges that feed a new generation of innovators. I believe that to be a truly healthy place, it must inspire people to build their identity around things they create, not around things they consume.

– Sharon VanderKaay

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