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If you’re reading this post on LinkedIn, then you already understand the power of communities working together to create new possibilities. But as we head into 2015, it’s worth underscoring the importance of community collaboration.

When Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank, his innovation was not so much the idea of lending small sums of money to poor villagers in Bangladesh; it was the idea of lending to small groups of women who could help each other make the best use of the loans and ensure repayment. The community was the big idea.

Communities have long been the key to building things that an individual or family might find beyond their resources. Think about the barn raising tradition. Communities came together to help farmers build over a few days what may have taken months to do individually. A modern example of barn raising can be found atLocal Motors where automotive enthusiasts come together in micro-factories to design and build off-road vehicles faster, and at a fraction of the price, of conventional manufacturers.

Two years ago, I wrote about the importance of making others successful at IDEO. We have found that for our own brand of design thinking, collaboration is essential. It’s the only way we can tackle the kinds of complex challenges that we think most need solving. At IDEO at least, better together is a fundamental business strategy.

This basic insight — the power of collaboration — led us to create OpenIDEO, our online community that enables anyone to use design thinking to address pressing global issues collaboratively. We have been blown away by the passion and commitment of the community that has participated in more than 25 challenges. And we’ve learned that the idea of community collaboration is especially valuable in three different ways.

  • Better understanding of users. By involving a broader community in the research phase of a challenge, everyone gains a more complete understanding of all the stakeholders and variety of use cases. For example, an OpenIDEO participant from Uganda assembled a team to interview parents and educators in rural villages to get first-hand insights about the most pressing needs for early childhood development.
  • Relevant place to prototype ideas. Rather than designing in a vacuum, working with communities in need adds that magic formula necessary to come up with solutions that directly affect those who will benefit from it. You’ll also have a readymade place to try out and improve your ideas. For example, after realizing the need for safe recreational spaces for women in Istanbul, participants of OpenIDEO’s Women’s Safety challenge tested their idea through a prototype in that community.
  • Built-in motivation to implement the idea. New ideas need lots of prototyping and work before they’re ready for launch. If communities are collaborating to solve their own problems, it’s much more likely that they’ll be motivated to carry the idea forward and to implement the ideas. What’s more, the idea might be picked up by an entirely different group – maybe even in another part of the world – than the one who created it. For example, college students in New York City worked with an NGO in Nepal to develop a new project that helps low-income women support each other in Kathmandu.

If you want to see how some of these ideas are playing out, or contribute to one yourself, check out the latest community-based challenge on OpenIDEO, the transition to renewable energy.

This challenge is relevant to just about everyone on the planet. How can your involvement in this community push the effort to the next level?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


Does changing how you make things change the way you live?

The answer is “yes,” according to Made in the Future, an experimental project I collaborated on with some colleagues at IDEO Boston. The Made in the Future website recently launched and it explores how today’s innovations in maker technology might affect designers and society at large five to ten years from now.

To get inspired about what making something by hand means to people, we constructed toy airplanes with kids, cooked alongside chefs, built motorbikes with weekend gear heads, and hung out with gifted researchers at the MIT Media Lab. We looked at cutting-edge innovations in designing, manufacturing and distributing, and asked: where’s it all heading next? It was all incredibly inspiring and we learned a lot.

On the website, we break down what we learned into five themes, each illustrated with provocative product concepts. For example, a device called MatterTone addresses the desire for meaningful customization by creating 3-D recordings of ephemeral conversations.Master’s Archive, a combination camera/laser projector, enables augmented reality woodworking education in real time and speaks to the possibilities of tech-enabled learning and mastery. These are only a few of the types of tools we might create, how those things will change the way we act and learn, and how these technologies will ultimately shape our future.

Many of the advances in manufacturing and communication we enjoy today—not to mention a number of careers like “designer” and “engineer”—trace their roots back to the Industrial Revolution and early 20-century. Some of these seismic shifts took hundreds of years to play out. Imagine what will happen if, in the blink of a decade, mass manufacturing and mass media become massively personalized, variable, and collaborative?

If my predictions are accurate, creative skills will be in ever-greater demand even though access to tools will be significantly democratized, and creative confidence will be a necessary mindset for doing business. It also means we’ll longer be slavishly consuming goods, but collaborating with the most sophisticated, large-scale manufacturers to create the exact things we need when and where we need them.

If all this sounds worrisome, take heart, there’s one thing I know won’t change. Yesterday, today, or tomorrow: the act of making makes us human.

How will you participate in the maker society of tomorrow?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

3 Must-Watch TED Talks

March 14, 2014 — 1 Comment


For three decades, three big red letters have signified an annual forum for the creative and forward thinking to share groundbreaking ideas. From revealing the first Apple Mac in 1984 to Jamie Oliver’s heartfelt plea for a Food Revolution in 2010, TED has been one of the best platforms in the world for making complex ideas completely gettable and easily sharable.

It’s hard to believe that for most of its history TED conferences were only accessible to an elite audience with significant resources. Lucky for us, seven years ago, curator Chris Anderson made these sessions available online to watch and download for free. Today, TED Talks are memes that instantly spread to millions across the world.

I humbly count myself among those lucky enough not to just attend TED conferences, but also to speak at them occasionally. I look forward to next week’s special gathering in Vancouver, B.C., called TED: The Next Chapter. It marks the conference’s 30 anniversary. Like any milestone, it’s a good chance to reflect on what’s come before. In the spirit of the TED Talk’s signature brevity, here are three of my favorites who will be part of this year’s “All-Star Sessions.”

Sir Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity” – There’s a reason why this author, educator, and creativity expert’s talk is the most watched TED talk ever (over 25 million views). Sir Ken argues for a significant rethinking of education leadership from “command and control” to “climate control” in order to create environments that nurture kids’ creativity. It’s been a huge boon to those of us interested in unlocking the creative confidence of the next generation.

John Maeda, “How Art, Technology, and Design Inform Creative Leaders – A programmer, artist, and former president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Maeda is passionate about putting the “A” (Art) into “STEM” education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This talk was taped when he was at RISD’s helm, trying to bring technology to the storied, handcraft-focused school.

Stewart Brand, “The Dawn of De-Extinction. Are You Ready? – The founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and Long Now Foundation, Brand argues for “de-extincting,” or bringing back previously extinct species like the carrier pigeon. Whether you’re horrified or indifferent, the idea that our current understanding of science may be deep enough to reverse environmental damage and return to a balanced eco-system is a paradigm shift that utterly transforms our legacy to future generations.

And if you’re new to TED and looking for an overview, the organizers have put together thisplaylist, which features 17 of their favorite talks over the past 30 years.

What are your favorite TED Talks and why?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


An IDEO researcher practicing “creative listening.”

What would an Argentinian car mechanic know about childbirth? If you’re Jorge Odon, father of five, quite a bit. Or at least enough to design a low-cost, low-tech instrument that could revolutionize how doctors assist mothers during difficult births—and save thousands of babies in countries where conventional, high-tech solutions aren’t available.

Odon, a self-professed tinkerer and inventor, was inspired by an ingenious party trick on how to get a loose cork out of an empty bottle. You tilt the bottle, stuff a plastic bag down the neck and blow into the opening. The bag balloons inside the bottle and wraps itself tightly around the cork. Then you pull it out. If it could work on a cork, Odon thought, maybe the same technique would help make labor easier.

Along with his friend, Carlos Modena, Odon prototyped and iterated on his idea using his daughter’s dolls and jam jars. When they had a working model, they called Dr. Javier Schvartzman at the Center for Medical Education and Clinical Research in Buenos Aires and asked if they could show him their device.

The story could easily have ended here, with the busy medical professional refusing to speak to the mechanic and his friend about birthing instruments instead of tires and struts. But what’s remarkable is that Dr. Schvartzman didn’t turn them away, instead he opened his mind and engaged what I call his “creative listening skills.”

Odon’s prototype was basic—just a proof-of-concept. But Dr. Schvartzman was able to see potential in the idea and imagine how it might be developed into a workable solution. By practicing “creative listening,” he was able to step out of his expertise and identify value in an idea that came from a complete outsider, with the intention of building on it and making it better.

This same skill is key to good improv theater: actors listen to the words of the previous actor and, despite never having heard them before, build on them to continue the narrative. Improvisers call it the “Yes, and” rule.

I’m convinced that creative breakthroughs and innovative solutions require creative listening. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-rare skill in many organizations. In fact, just the opposite happens. When someone shares a “crazy idea,” the instinct is to cite all the reasons why it wouldn’t work—shutting it down with a “No, but” response.

Imagine how much untapped potential could be released into the world if more of us opened our minds—and ears—and responded with a “Yes, and” to wild-eyed outliers like Jorge Ordon.

What idea have you built on recently through creative listening?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


By Tim Brown and Jane Fulton Suri

There’s an entire industry built around how to be a better leader and build strong, dynamic teams. But for the last few years, my colleague and dear friend Jane Fulton Suri and I have been looking to the earth and seas and sky for inspiration.

A Partner, Chief Creative Officer, and a founding member of IDEO’s human-centered design practice, Jane believes that the natural world has much to teach us about cultivating the optimal conditions for creative teams. Together, with help from design biologist Tim McGee, we’ve come up with a few bio-inspired tips:


1. Design a Fertile Habitat

In the natural world, certain organisms create a habitat for diverse species through their own growth. For example, a single tree can provide unique perches and conditions that foster life adapted to those regions. A rainforest canopy supports an entire ecosystem of mammals and birds that live on insects, fruits, and seeds from the trees and other plants growing within their branches.

Likewise, in human organizations, it’s important to create environmental conditions that cue and simultaneously support a diverse group of people and activities harmoniously. Smaller, quiet spaces are good for heads-down contemplation while open-plan studios encourage serendipitous meetings, collaboration, and teamwork.

What kind of office habitat can you create to encourage creative teamwork and help different personalities thrive?


2. Create Simple Rules

When birds fly in formation, the group stays organized without top-down control. By following one simple rule—maintain distance—each individual bird keeps track of the bird to the front and the side of it so the entire flock is able to act in a coordinated way. Simple rules allow coordinated action, or swarm intelligence, to emerge from a community of individuals.

In creative teams, it can be difficult to effectively coordinate action or achieve group consensus. Typically, in human communities, we default to top-down hierarchy: someone takes charge and makes all the decisions. But that structure runs the risk of disempowering others and dismissing good ideas. How can we coordinate a team’s activities and still maintain the motivation, energy, and agency of individual contributors? For example, during brainstorming, teams can be more productive by agreeing to defer judgment and have one conversation at a time.

What guiding principle or simple rules would ensure team members preserve their autonomy while remaining coordinated with group progress?


3. Be Productive

Sea turtles spawn hundreds of offspring and leave them to fend for themselves. Subjected to a combination of pressures—predators, ocean currents, temperatures—most won’t make it to maturity. But those that do survive strengthen the gene pool and better adapt the species to its environment. Compare this with elephants (and humans), which have only a few offspring, but invest a tremendous amount of guidance and resources to make sure they succeed.

Contrast that to idea generation amongst teams. Fearing failure and judgment, we humans tend to quickly converge on a promising solution and develop it to high fidelity. But the investment of time and energy in an idea that ultimately proves unsuccessful can be demoralizing. As with turtles, it’s more effective to explore a greater number of ideas at lower fidelity, knowing that many will ultimately not make it out in the world. If you iteratively prototype multiple ideas, teams will learn what works and what doesn’t with minimal investment.

How do you encourage your team to explore a broad range of ideas cheaply and with low fidelity so they don’t converge on an idea too quickly?


4. Expect Collaboration

Contrary to widespread belief, biologists are finding that successful organisms tend to collaborate more than compete. Birch trees and rhododendrons, for example, grow close by each other in the woods. The birch provides shade to the rhododendron, keeping it from drying out. The rhododendron, in turn, provides the birch with defensive molecules that protect it from being eaten by insects. This symbiotic relationship allows both to survive longer.

At IDEO, a similar transfer of insight and skills keep the organization healthy. Learning from ecosystems like the forest, we form cohesive groups that add up to more than a sum of competing parts. More than anything else, it is this deep collaboration that enables our teams to thrive in challenging work environments.

How can each team member’s skills build on those of others to allow growth?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)