A Forum for Innovation

Marty Cagan’s Open Letter To The Design Community

Marty Cagan of SVPG has a brilliant article on UX that is required reading for designers working within product companies. He hits the nail on the head regarding understanding your different internal constituents, the importance of high fidelity prototyping, and how to get design involved earlier in the process in a way that is both meaningful and impactful.


Open Colony guest-post on Dachis’ collaboratory

Open Colony CEO, Caitlin Pulleyblank, writes about taking executive recruiting social

Designing jobs and organizations, how we apply biomimicry to work.

namid dessert beetle

The audience last Thursday was filled with more professionals, graduate students and professors than the undergrads I had expected. A rowdy and friendly crowd of MBA candidates from the Presidio School of Management settled next to me as Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, began her talk for the College of Environmental Design’s 50th anniversary celebration. UC Berkeley’s CED was the first academic program to synchronize the disciplines of environmental design, urban planning, and architecture so it is no wonder they are fans of biomimicry, a design approach that leads to stunning, sustainable and cross-disciplinary solutions in among others, the fields of architecture , healthcare , transportation , agriculture, industrial, supply chain, software, defense, telecomm, business and environmental design.

The discoveries are irresistible. Slime mold is not only gorgeous but apparently rocks as a model for efficient resource delivery. Their ideas come from the “small” research tactics of science but the implications can be large such as their guidelines for Ecological Performance Standards which would hold cities to the solar, filtration, soil erosion… full ecosystem performance indicators that existed before humans started building in a location. Imagine San Francisco re-designed to function like an old growth forest where buildings with roofs like rainforest leaves drip water to flush toilets and walls like Namibian Stenocara eburnean beetles capture fog to fill water fountains.

It is easy to dismiss biomimicry as beautiful but utopian fluff, as a bit hip dip or, conversely, to be swept away into a metaphorical non-specificity where applicability is vaguely inspiring but lost. However careers, products, processes, research, companies, industries and economies are already here and profitable. Open Colony works with these companies as they are leaders in innovation and we will continue to track them and other similar trends in our research over time. Our ears perk up whenever we observe next-gen jobs developing around domain convergence such as when Benyus, a biologist by training and a writer by trade, earned a top designer award from Business Week. T-shaped executives excel at the convergence, a term Frans Johannsson also discusses in his book The Medici Effect, when describing innovation. Bio-inspired work is good for us. For how can we fair poorly in an organization designed around life’s principals; around experiences and economies designed to produce conditions conducive to life? How does Chief Sustainability Officer at a Building Company or Ad Agency strike you? How about Head of User Experience Design at a green car company? How about Chief Innovation and Sustainability Officer at an investment firm?

Of course industrial ecology is not new. In the early 1990s, Eric Bonabeau, an R&D engineer at France Telecom, did some research with Guy Theraulaz, an ecologist, about how ants discover the most efficient routes to food. Bonabeau then applied their discoveries to routing inefficiencies, a recurrent telecommunications network problem. By applying insect behavior to computer algorithms his work became the foundation of “swarm intelligence”, a tool currently used in many corporations including Jeff Dachis’ new company, DachisGroup.

After the lecture I asked Benyus about where to find innovation in nature for our work at Open Colony. I sought direction for how to design and understand jobs, companies, economies and work at large? After a quick disclaimer about the dangers of Social Darwinism, she directed me to two areas of ecological research: community ecology and resilience systems, studies into why some communities survive catastrophe and others don’t. Currently piecemeal business-related solutions exist, from efficient file-sharing to asset recycling and software design but we seek a complex and fully formed design model for a company and its communications, a design for it to thrive within its habitat and provide meaningful work.

Benyus shared that in nature, all work is about a function, a canopy provides canopy, implying that our work should also have purpose. Mature ecosystems and species are here for one thing only, to assure that they survive any disruption for generations to come ad infinitum. Is the rational conclusion of Benyus idea then that our work be designed only for survival? And if so, what would that look like?

Benyus doesn’t answer this question directly but she does point to several tenets as a model for healthy businesses and economies. She says that healthy ecosystems require collaboration as well as competition (see examples in her book of pre-competitive technology sharing between Japanese car companies and resource food chains in Denmark), designing with limits as opposed to around them, using waste like a resource (recycling cars and copiers, downloading new computers), diversifying within a species (or job functions) like prairies do and even acting with generosity (gasp).

Beynus also addresses communications design. She explains that top down communication doesn’t play a large role in healthy ecosystems (knowing that most CEOs vastly overestimate their ability to communicate to their immediate peers much less their entire staffs this didn’t surprise me) but have multiple communications systems, including from the bottom up, dispersed throughout the community structure. A rich feedback system allows a change in one component of the community to reverberate through the whole, allowing for adaptation when the environment changes. This idea is an useful touchstone in the social media era as companies decide how to evolve their communications within their organizations and out to customers, partners, investors and media.

On the other hand, power at the top should not be discounted. Sociologist James Hunter, says that innovation happens through great institutional change, at the confluence of and with the conscious use of social, cultural, financial and political capital. However both Hunter and Benyus agree that innovation requires great institutional and social change.

As for our floating, growing colony, please stay tuned as we venture into SCIENCE for the ultimate, complete, complex and gorgeous company, communications and work designs out there waiting for us. And in the meantime enjoy the following bio-jobs and resources:

Jobs Open Colony tracks and places…
• Head of experience design for a green automotive company
• Chief Experience & Sustainability Officer for a hospital
• Executive Creative Director for a biomimicry inspired medicine
• Head of sustainability for a cloud computing, Green IT, Green Building
• “BAT” jobs, biologists are at the table at Ad agencies, Design Companies, Architecture
• Chief Design and Marketing Executive at a green CPG company
• Head of Sustainability at a Sustainable investment and research firm
• Sustainability professor at a school for design
• CTO for a solar energy company

Companies Using Biomimicry…

Bio-inspired Resources, Products and Companies
Ask Nature
Wiser Earth
Bio Poems
Project Frog
B Corp
fuseproject wearpact
Highwater Research

Have Fun!

Q&A with Chris Tacy: What keeps you up at night?

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Debunking the myth of the entrepreneur.

I was pleased to see Malcolm Gladwell take a nuanced hammer to the myth of the entrepreneur, a viral notion that brave risk taker = successful captain of industry, in The New Yorker’s Jan 18th issue.  Gladwell demonstrates how Ted Turner and other representatives of entrepreneurial success in fact practice fiscal conservatism.  Apparently, instead of being more courageous than you or me, these supposed captains of risk are simply less emotional, more analytical and much (much) better capitalized. Richard Sennett holds a similar if harsher spotlight onto the “Davos elite” in his book Corrosion of Character, The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism in which he echoes Gladwell’s view that the risk narrative comes easily to those who have large stores of capital and the ability to mitigate risk.  Sennett adds that for the current business elite, corporate success depends upon an unacceptable and destructive level of risk for the majority in the form of the new and “flexible corporation” an institution that operates more like a network or “archipelago of related activities.”  This flexible ecosystem, while lighter on its feet (and more profitable) morphs careers into projects and roles into decomposable or re-definable functions and assets.  It is a place where people lose their jobs, career narratives, social and financial capital and in the worst-case scenario, lose their moral identity.

I share Gladwell’s curiosity about “what would happen if we realized that the people who are supposedly taking bold risks in the cause of entrepreneurship are actually doing no such thing?” Sennett elaborates on a myriad of historical, cultural and philosophical causes for our current reverence for individual risk including Hesiod’s injunction to the farmer “not to delay”, Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism, Michael Young’s essay, Meritocracy,  and psychological research showing “that in talking about risk” we use the locution of ‘being at risk’.”

So even if we awoke one morning to a pot of gold (in place of coffee) and the wisdom to invest with minimal risk and tremendous upside, we remain unlikely to succeed because of how business is reconstituting itself.  As organizations and roles dissolve and reconstitute, the myth of the entrepreneur is strengthened because of the individual’s need to assert “the sheer strength of his will as the essence of his own ethical character” even as the likelihood of his success diminishes. According to Sennett, the problem becomes “how to organize our life histories in a capitalism which disposes us to drift.”

I often lapse into despair while reading Sennett but he inevitably revitalizes me.  Here are a few tips for companies and individuals on how to survive and thrive in the floating morass of work despite the real risks we face:

Social Networking is not just a fad but like Oatmeal it is extremely good for you.  What better way to sustain and leverage a work narrative and career than through those we have worked with in the past, confer with in the present and will work with in the future?  Herein lies a jollier definition of the new corporation.

As for corporate narratives, that transparent, permeable layer currently in the shape of a corporate blog and/or ad campaign will begin to influence new products, services and customers.  Disarming perhaps but worth pursuing.

Data is not just for social scientists, user experience designers, database gurus, Google, financial and marketing executives. By breaking down the his subjects’ analytical processes, Gladwell reveals the consistently unpopular but necessary fact that research, data design (asking the right questions), objective research and validation is something we all must excel in and design into our organizations.  This observation applies to the Operation and HR functions, where design, development and iteration of domain expertise criteria, cross-functional processes, technology platforms, performance criteria, customer experience, internal and external marketing factors and profitability warrant investigation and innovation.

Redesign HR so that it is not an island. In his article for Fast Company, Keith Hammonds suggests that “making exceptions should be exactly what HR does,” an idea that might help us address the pitfalls in a culture of risk and change.  Why not design more sustainable work cultures and narratives which resonate with human-centered requirements?

Biomimicry author Janine Benyus writes about how to sustainably reshape how we work and live, including how we store our information, heal ourselves, eat, conduct businesses and economies, make things, store energy and learn.  More on this later in the week, including designing your business like a rainforest, pre-competitive collaboration, decomposable design and asset recovery.


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