If you’re a busy professional like me, chances are your calendar looks a lot like a Tetris board. Every minute of every day is accounted for. Some hyper-organization is necessary, of course. How else would business get done? But on a recent trip to Chicago, my colleague Aaron Ferber reminded me of the importance of leaving room in one’s personal and work life for serendipity. He shared the following story with the IDEO Chicago studio. It resonated with his fellow designers and me and I thought my LinkedIn readers would enjoy it, too. Here’s what Aaron had to say:

“I’m the vacation planner in my family. My organizational approach is simple: plan every day, but not a single minute. I do enough research so we go to interesting places, but not so much that there’s no time left for the unexpected, because those chance moments are sometimes the most delightful and memorable.

I came across a term a few years ago that perfectly encapsulates my approach to vacation planning: ‘engineered serendipity.’ The notion that you could intentionally design your life to encounter surprises struck a chord with me and reminded me of a trip my wife and I once took to Honduras.

We’d just finished a short stint volunteering at an orphanage and were back in the city of La Ceiba, about to catch our flight home. Before leaving, however, we wanted to buy a hammock as a souvenir. We’d seen lots of beautiful, handmade hammocks for sale by local craftsman during our stay, but our last day in Honduras happened to be a holiday, and all the street vendors were closed. The only place that was open was the mall. The stores there had a few hammocks, but they were mass manufactured, not made by hand, and were much more expensive. Disappointed and running out of time, we gave up and hopped into a cab.

On a whim, I mentioned to the driver that we were looking for a hammock, did he know where we could get one? He paused, thought for a bit, then slowly nodded his head. ‘Si,’ he said, and threw the car in drive without further explanation.

After some time, we pulled up in front of a large, cinder block building on the outskirts of town. It didn’t have many windows, just a single door on the side. The driver slammed the car in park and hopped out without saying a word. My wife and I sat in the back and exchanged worried glances. As our driver walked up to a group of uniformed guys standing outside the building, it dawned on us: the men were police officers and the building was a jail.

After a few very long minutes, the driver returned. He told us they had a hammock for sale. My wife and I looked warily at each other. Was this a scam? Were we going to be shaken down for a bribe? Or should we trust him? Desperate, and more than a bit curious, we got out of the cab.

An officer told us to empty our pockets before entering the building. Handing over our bags and wallets (!), we stepped into the jail, which was basically one giant room surrounded by bars. Dozens of guys were milling around, working out, and playing cards. Spotting visitors, they turned and stared.

The officer yelled at one of the inmates. The prisoner grabbed something, hopped off his bunk, and walked over to us…hammock in hand.

We stood, mouths open, as he showed off his masterpiece. Every bit the salesman, he talked about the quality of the construction, the colorful patterns, and the tassels that ran along each side. The hammock was beautiful, exactly what we wanted. His asking price was higher than we wanted, ‘But’ I said, trying to justify the purchase to my wife, ‘this hammock comes with a story!’ After some haggling, we agreed on a price. The prisoner carefully folded the hammock until it was small enough to fit through the bars. We passed a stack of cash back through the bars and thanked him.

Stunned, delighted, and inspired—with a beautiful, new hammock to boot!—we climbed back into the cab and sped to the airport.

So my question to you is this: How might you engineer some serendipity into your next vacation or into your day today? This could be a simple as taking a new route on your commute to work or asking someone on the street for directions instead of relying on Google Maps.

Who knows, you could find nothing.

But maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a hammock.”

What happened the last time you opened yourself up to serendipity?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


A few months ago, I wrote a post about five technologies in need of design makeovers in 2014. I’m happy to report my colleagues at, working with a group of NGOs and health and tech industry collaborators, have taken a shot at redesigning the most newsworthy item on that list, and the one with the worst reputation: drones.

The newly launched Drones for Health site focuses on the positive aspects of the remote aerial devices, asking the question, “How can drones improve global health?”

Rather than creepy privacy invaders or weapons of war, the team (Behrouz Hariri, Adam Reineck, and John Won) saw past the technology’s bad reputation and repositioned drones as “flying helpers,” coming up with scenarios in which unmanned aerial vehicles are uniquely suited to address big global health challenges.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, for example, when the land is impassable, a drone could collect data from the sky; or what if they traveled the last-mile of the transportation infrastructure, delivering life-saving medicine and immunizations to the world’s hardest-to-reach corners?

The team’s vision, along with a set of design guidelines, are meant to inspire potential drone builders to create future flying helpers that look and act more human, contributing to the social good.

I’m inspired by this thoughtful, optimistic approach. In three short months, they were able to transform drones from dreadful to delightful. It made me wonder:

How might we inspire new collaborations and create more human-centered solutions to other maligned technologies like big data or email?

(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)


We say we practice human-centered design at IDEO, but what does that really mean? Our friends at +Acumen and have designed a free online course to answer that question. Open to anyone anywhere in the world—no prior design experience needed— the class is called “Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation.” The goal is to teach budding social entrepreneurs how to develop solutions for those who live in such dire circumstances, they may not know where their next meal will come from.

The team-based, 7-week curriculum was first offered last summer and brought together over 13,000 people from 134 countries. Many inspiring ideas came out of the course, but one in particular caught my attention.

Two groups of staff members from Jacaranda Health in Kenya, which is dedicated to providing affordable, high-quality healthcare to low-income women in East Africa, looked at “barriers to good nutrition” for pregnant women. To better understand the problem, they interviewed people all along the healthy eating chain—pregnant women, farmers, community members, cooks, and food buyers—distilled the information, then brainstormed possible solutions. Then they built prototypes and showed them to patients in their maternity clinic for feedback.

What’s interesting is that even thought the two groups were looking at the same problem—“improve pregnant women’s nutrition”—they came up with very different solutions. One group thought better education was the answer, so they came up with healthy eating do’s and don’ts that they published in a local newspaper and posted in the clinic’s waiting room. The other group felt pregnant women know what to eat, they just don’t have the right resources, so they created a burlap-sack kitchen garden that would grow iron-rich greens in their homes.

Jacarada Health’s commitment to taking a human-centered approach to solving their communities’ maternal-health challenges is impressive and has caught the attention of the Gates Foundation, Heath Enterprise Fund, and others. In about the time it takes to get a passport, you, too, can be introduced to a whole new way to approach the world’s toughest challenges.

Specifically, the social-innovation course will:

  • Teach you human-centered design processes and methods
  • Help you identify patterns and opportunities for concept development
  • Inspire you to approach challenges differently and experience how human-centered design can add a new perspective to your own work
  • Give you hands-on experience speaking to, prototyping for, and testing solutions with potential users.

This year’s registration deadline—March 30—is fast approaching. Time to design a better, more human future together. Sign up now.


What challenges will you tackle with your newly acquired design-thinking skills?


(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)