A great video on the philosophy behind Nike footwear designer Mike Friton. He has dedicated his 30 year career combining traditional crafts like paper-making and weaving into understanding and stretching footwear properties. To make them lighter, or more breathable.
I’m struck by those pioneering individuals who combine leftfield interests that help or shape what they are principally recognised for. The most famous example is that of Steve Jobs passion for calligraphy. It’s impossible to say what influence it had on Jobs’ philosophy for Apple, but it paints a more rounded picture of the man behind the myth.
We’ve never had more choice in what we consume, yet pioneers like Mike Friton are able to join the disparate dots and craft something new and different.
I’ve been kicking around an idea for a project heavily influenced by Russell Davies’ the internet of middle-class things. What Russell did was to shine a light on how easy it is to create a deeply personal and human response with simple bit of kit and some software.
So I created Robbie the Robot Interactive Lamp:
What I wanted to create was a simple messaging device to tell my eldest daughter I was on my way home from work. In theory I would arrive at my local station and press a button or check-in and this would switch on Robbie the Robert in her room. It takes the idea of the internet of things and makes it more tangible.
Robbie the Robot is a simple lamp that I bought from SKK Lighting on Lexington Street, Soho. (Sadly it seems that SKK will be moving out of Soho after 28 years.)
I wanted a fun lamp that was relatively durable and child proof. On an earlier prototype I used a desk lamp that unfortunately was too hot for my 5-year-old daughter’s digits so I had to make sure Robbie was safe.
Like Russell I used a Belkin Wemo switch to connect the lamp to the internet. Now I’m not wholly sold on Wemo as the perfect answer due to a technical glitch with the first plug I owned. Nevertheless it does the job.
My original intention was to use IFTTT to bridge the gap between Foursquare and the Wemo Switch. In theory I would check in to my local train station and this would automatically make Robbie the Robert switch on and off. I still haven’t got Foursquare and the Wemo switch synced up via IFTTT but I can still activate the switch via my smartphone (which I guess it pretty much the same thing).
The Foursquare checkin was inspired by a more advanced approach to the internet of things called “Where’s Dad” by Toby Barnes. I lack the programming chops to re-produce what he’s done but I’m pretty satisfied with how Robbie turned out.
One thing that is missing is the ability for my daughter to feedback that she knows I’m on way home and for me to receive some sort of automated tweet. I think that lifts the concept of the internet of things into a really rich territory.
Wemo sell a motion sensor device that links to the Wemo switch up but its too clunky for my purposes. There is a beautifully designed concept The Good Night Lamp, which at the time of writing, is looking for funding on Kickstarter. This has the kind of feedback loop I want for Robbie.
I have a raft of notes about how I could feasibly tweak it further. I’m quite curious by printed optics and whether it could offer a workable solution but for now I’m pleased with how Robbie has turned out.
It started with a tongue in cheek tweet last month I made on the hype surrounding 3D printing, that got picked up by a few people.
The question I have is whether 3D printing has been blown out of proportion? Whether it is a means through which the design and manufacture of things will be democratised. I think this utopian idea of 3D printing being a ubiquitous tool in the home, neglects a few important factors.
Consumption of Resources
Whether we like it or not there is a finite amount of resources at our disposal. The cost implications of creating a 3D printed object will be on the whole more expensive compared with a dedicated and specialised tool. Economies of scale will always give the ‘professional’ 3D printing practice, an advantage over the home user.
3D Printed Craftmanship
Another fallacy of 3D printing is that it is a great leveller of talent. That 3D printed objects that could only be created through graft and craft can be easily designed and manufactured. Whether it is by hand or machine, by putting in the hours, learning what the limits of the hardware and software are will separate the amature from the artisan 3D ‘publisher’.
At the Thomas Heatherwick exhibition at the V&A earlier this year, there was a sound bite of Thomas talking about the importance of working with materials, tools, and techniques and building up sufficient expertise to understand what the tolerances are. That philosophy is no different when it come to 3D printing.
Where 3D printing offers value is by creating an environment to prototype and test designs, ideas, and concepts relatively cheaply. In the future I can imagine the cross-pollination of 3D blueprints to give rise to new forms of design.
The Rise of the Fixers
With 3D printing, rather than giving rise to a new form of consumerism, it may place a value on delayed obsolescence. A culture of make do and mend, could see parts easily replaced. There’s little stopping future design from being integrated with 3D printing in much the same way as that existing TV’s and Blu-ray machines are connected to the internet.
What about the less then savoury side of 3D printing. Earlier in 2012 there was an attempt by a group known as the Defense Distributors to create a printable gun and sell the blueprints online. It was only when Stratasys, the supplier of the 3D Printer was made aware of what their equipment was going to be used for that they pulled out of the deal.
However persistence and money will mean it’s only a matter of time before these ‘dark blueprints’ find their way on the market.
It is entirely possible that in the future, we could see chemical engineering technology – which is prohibitively expensive today – filter down into laboratories and small commercial enterprises. Even more importantly, we could use 3D printing to revolutionise access to healthcare in the developing world.
For my money, where 3D printing has potential is through shaping creativity by providing a launch pad for design and technology to come together. It should be less about the consumption of goods and more about the natural evolution of materials and techniques that change how we interact with the world.
Nike’s recent decision to open up it’s Fuel Band API to developers throws up some fascinating opportunities for Â healthcare apps to break into the mainstream. Currently available in the US, Nike’s Fuel Band measures an individual’s daily activity and produces a score which can be shared through various social networks. But by allowing the data to be made available raises the possibility of integrating it with healthcare and insurance policy providers.
The provision of healthcare by the UK government is estimated at 8% of GDP, which roughly equates toÂ GBP100 billion. This has led toÂ successive UK governments looking to cut the cost of the NHS, whilst on the other be seen not to excessively punish the tobacco and drinks industries through taxation. Preventative healthcare through apps that harnesses an individual’s data could feasibly reduce that cost. However persuading enough people to adopt the use of such health apps means it is highly unlikely to have an impact on reducing the overall cost of health care any time soon.
The ability to overcome the privacy concerns of individuals is key to the adoption of health apps going forward, whether it’s incentivising the consumers with rewards or providing a clear benefit. The NHS Quit Smoking App, successfully applied the idea of loss aversion to demonstrate how much money a user saves by not smoking.
Providing a suitable incentive for consumers to opt into a service in exchange for their data is nothing new. For some time now, Google has been regarded as the top dog when it comes to a value exchange model built on data. Now we are seeing that approach applied to traditional sectors. For example insurance companies are promising cheaper car insurance for consumers in exchange for a modified blackbox being hardwired into their car, that collects data on their driving habits.
Clearly as the example above demonstrates consumers are prepared to engage in a value exchange. However privacy concerns around an individual’s health cannot be underestimated. Plugging lifestyle data into a medical care program or health service demands clear value for the consumer participating.Â I wouldn’t discount the possibility of health insurance firms becoming lifestyle providers where consumers would be able to select their rewards above and beyond cheaper insurance rates based on how active a consumer has been over a period of time.
Delivering new ways of measuring and tailoring health programs to the need of the individual is likely to be another key trend going forward. At the Google Firestarters session earlier this year there was a talk from Adil Abrar on Sidekick Studios Buddy project. The Buddy project allows for a patient’s wellbeing to be monitored remotely by their primary contact. This serves two important activities: firstly it allows a log of a patient’s mental health to be logged over time and a programme of treatment to be devised more accurately; secondly patients are reminded to attend their assessment sessions as part of the service.
What the Buddy Project illustrates is that an effective healthcare program can be provided relatively cheaply. In July 2011 OpenIDEO Â reached out to it’s online audience to crowdsource healthcare solutions to help low income income areas of Columbia. Again what’s fascinating about some of the winning concepts is enabling medical knowledge to be easily transmitted at a low cost.
As the demand for healthcare becomes ever greater, new solutions for delivering targeted programs for individual consumers that is cost effective becomes key. Future healthcare solutions will therefore need to tread a balance between a patient’s data offering targeted value with the highly sensitive concerns patient’s have around their medical data.
A truly fascinating series of speakers were on show for the first Google Firestarters of 2012 to discuss the theme of Entrepreneurship. Indeed this was the first of two talks in a week on the very topic (I’ll follow this up with a further post on the second talk shortly). What was so refreshing about each of the speakers was to demystify some of the preconceptions of entrepreneurship we have in the UK – usually characterised by the likes of the Apprentice or Dragon’s Den. But more importantly it illustrated a new model for enterprises to adopt in an ever changing and confusing world.
The modus operandi for most business schools is to teach howÂ you run or create a successful business. The question why plays second fiddle to a common set of rules, methodologies, and connections that enable business graduates to make scaleable business models. This throws up an interesting dilemma because the majority of business graduates tend to gravitate towards mainstream business sectors e.g. banking, consultancy, and insurance. It begs the question whether business schools are effectively homogenising entrepreneurship?
If the focus for business schools continues to be on exit strategies and path to maturity where does that leave the question of why someone embarks on creating a product or service?Â It was the question why, that provided the glue between the eclectic mix of speakers at the first Google Firestarters of 2012. David Hiette of the Do Lectures eloquently spoke of the need to frame the question why, before he could start his new denim business from scratch. The question why was expressed in the quality and the craftsmanship of his products, that could only come from people with the experience and pride in what they do.
Asking the question why differentiates the enterprises willing to look at the world slightly differently. Rather than slavishly wandering down a well travelled path, there is an opportunity as Adil Abrar paraphrased to “head for the ditch”. Essentially for entrepreneurs to play at the edges and work inwards towards the mainstream. That’s where the really interesting stuff happens.Â Toby BarnesÂ to took the concept of playing at the edges with passion even further by suggesting that in today’s connected world it’s never been easier to scale niche hobbies. His key message was to designed for an audience of one and scale outwards, as oppose to broadcast to the widest possible audience.
I’ve spoken in the past of “Fetishising the Physical” – a growing interest in making things as a reaction to the intangibility of our digital lives. All of the speakers at Google Firestarters demonstrated examples where digital is firmly integrated into a physical and emotional experience. David Hiette spoke of objects telling stories too. We already invest our emotions into objects we love and have a story to tell. Â What if objects were tagged with the memories of previous users that can be accessed to create their own timeline and sense of history.
It’s this space between the intangible and the tangible that opens up new opportunities and thinking. The term Entrepreneurship has been rooted in the traditional economic construct of labour and capital since the 19th Century. However as the relationship between labour and capital has changed in the digital age, entrepreneurship to me means opening up new areas of play for enterprises.
This idea of a new space for enterprises to operate in can only come about through making something you passionately believe in available. By bringing ideas, no matter how left field, into the mainstream shines a light on a brighter and more exciting future.
In my Â last post, I wrote about how good product design bends technology to it’s will to create something that is both functional and beautiful. The counter argument to that is what happens when form and function ceases to be relevant in the modern age?Â Has the Kodak Moment faded from history?
In the recent case of Kodak the answer appears to be the death of an industry giant, unable to get to grips with the digitisation of it’s business.Â However, rather than simply putting the blame at the door of digital technology, I believe that it’s malaise was symptomatic of a cultural shift in how traditional business continues to operate when compared with the modern definition of startups.
The old way of creating successful business models in the 19th-20th Centuries was to limit the means of production to the few who could afford it. This is beginning to look increasingly out of place in the digital age. There is a shift to a more open and connected philosophy of conducting business.
Kodak, like many other businesses that have failed before it, made one fatal mistake â€“ it forgot the true purpose of its business and instead focused on features, SKUs and products. Kodak continued to define itself by â€œfilmâ€ when all it should have done is define itself with â€œphotosâ€ or moments.
The economist, by contrast, paints a picture of Kodak being a rabbit caught in the headlights of modern progress, despite coming up with the concept of digital photography as early as 1979.
Both Kodak and it’s main rival FujiFilm recognised that digital photography was going to have an impact on their traditional business model, both firms also recognised that digital photography in itself was not going to be very profitable when compared to traditional film. But the key difference between the two photo giants was that Fuji was prepared to adapt more readily to the changing appetite for digital photography.
This got me thinking as to whether the key to Kodak’s decline was due to the fact it was a product of it’s day – a US business model of selling stuff to the rest of the world while ensuring it enjoyed the benefits of protectionism from foreign competitors? Add on top of this a corporate culture of risk avoidance and product perfectionism, it’s no wonder Kodak slid into the role of ‘complacent monopolist‘.
In the same way that General MotorsÂ epitomised US big business, Kodak found itself increasingly at odds with the liberalisation of trade and information across the world. A different business mindset was required. Kodak should have aimed to be an international business who happens to be based in the US. Instead it maintained a course of resisting change until it became too late.
Fuji’s willingness to adapt to changing conditions is rooted in Japanese management culture as a whole. There are two key planks to this perspective: 1) a proactive attitude to collaboration and information sharing (hourensou) 2) and a philosophy of (genchi genbutsu) where everyone is expected to be involved in solving the problem across all levels of the business.
Aspects of this Japanese business philosophy has undoubtedly been applied to the concept of the lean startup. With the focus on rapid iterations in response to changing requirements, agile or lean software development has formed the basis for many tech startups. But fundamentally the culture is less inward looking (a la Kodak) and more outward focused .
Instagram created a new market for digital photography whilst playing in the space that Kodak abandoned – a homage to the original Kodak Instamatic and Polaroid cameras of the past. From an initial investment of $500,000 in 2010 and a further $7,000,000 in 2011, Instagram was able to capture 5 million users and an estimated 150 million images have been uploaded to it’s service. Effectively the management team of Instagram created not just a product/service, but a scaleable platform where anyone is free to use and build upon the Instagram API.
It’s within this new operating environment, built on openness, problem solving, and frequent iterations that highlight just where Fuji Film and Instagram went right, and where Kodak went wrong.
To say that digital killed Kodak is misleading, and there are a whole range of other factors to consider that outside of this topic. Nevertheless the business culture of Kodak, was rooted in the old US centric form of thinking. In this connected world with free global trade and information, you could no longer have a situation where a product is valued simply on being from country x. Information on price, quality, design, and utility have levelled the playing field for consumers to make those purchase decisions.
Fundamentally advancement in digital technology played a contributing role but was not the main factor in Kodak’s decline. Rather Kodak became a cultural relic of big business practice in the US. It struggled to recognise that the world had moved on, and now its memory will fade.
For a child who grew up in the 80s, with the obligatory bad taste in hair, music and clothes, I remember reading these fantastical books on tomorrow’s world. They were full of vivid illustrations of moon bases, of flying cars, and mega cities. The future that was illustrated was bright, full optimism, with unlimited resources and boundless imagination.
Over the past few days I’ve been collating and evaluating future trends for 2012, with a view to providing a curated service for clients at work. There are number of findings that were uncovered that lends weight to a more pragmatic and dare I say it less optimistic view of humanity and the future:
Future trends from different sources have certain common themes at the core with more outlandish thinking at the edges
Big future thinking of the past has been replaced by smaller ideas
Real value in trend prediction comes not from focusing on technology but giving equal weighting to social-political and economic influences
Boxing up Trends
What was surprising going through the number of trend reports was the commonality on certain themes. Whilst sources sometimes contradicted themselves on a perspective, it was easy to box up the points of views into broader themes. For example, in our increasingly connected online lives, there is a whole range of thinking as to how this will be develop in the future, from the concept of Big Data where everything about a consumer’s habits is known and used, to the always on, always available flow of data at our finger tips.
But what was of interest within the context of this broader theme of digital were those contrary examples that went against the grain of conventional trend thinking. For example we uncovered examples of consumers fetishising the physical. As our music, films, photos, and memories (Facebook Timeline) become increasingly intangible in nature, there is a subtle move to get back to the tangible.
Another interesting example that ran counter to an all pervasive connected life was the concept of embracing ‘cold spots’, e.g. people deliberately seeking to find or create a space where they are temporarily disconnected from disruption.
It was these left field trends that in my opinion provide the real validation of the broader trend themes that we uncovered, that elevated them from the superficial and the trivial.
Sum of Parts
What has struck me, and I still don’t know the answer, is whether the big ideas on future thinking have given way to smaller ideas. The big ideas of my childhood revolved around a bright future for humanity, with unlimited resources, increased leisure time, and expansive exploration into space. A lot of the trends we evaluated and rejected from our 2012 curated list wereÂ narrow in scope. They were too focused on innovation in a particular product or service space that meant it was difficult to truly disassociate them from their origins and elevate them to a broader trend. If, for example, tougher plastics are the future how is that applicable to the categories of trends?
It’s been over 20 years since Francis Fukuyama wrote that with the fall of communism, a new chapter in humanity had arrived and that the future would be characterised by boredom in the absence of conflict. Political philosopher John Gray argued that the trouble with Fukuyama’s assertion, was that it rooted in the myth that humanity was on the path to reaching a universal set of values and institutions.
As progress continues, these supposedly hard-headed people believe the gains that have been made in the past will be conserved, while lingering evils will gradually diminish.
Current political, economic, and sociological events paint a very different picture to such a utopian vision.
However, it is these (gradual or seismic) shifts in socio-political and economic in values and institutions that contextualises trend thinking. When curating the list of trends, talking about technological advancements in isolation is of little value. Real value comes from assessing the impact of these technologies will have socio-political and economic life and vice versa.
A good example would be a trend towards self diagnosis and lifestyle monitoring. With an ageing population, and the rising cost of health care, governments, insurance companies, and employers are already giving serious consideration towards people taking responsibility themselves for monitoring their health.
In this uncertain world we live in, people and organisations are crying out for clarity in understanding where the future will take them. Trend reporting in that respect is like an insurance policy that we can take (false) comfort in. Hedging your bets that technology in itself will bring a new dawn is wishful thinking (sorry). When ever you see the top trends for 2o12 list we take comfort that some of our hunches will be validated.
However it is the broader themes influenced by the combination of technology, and political-economic and social factors that offers real value.