Design nations

October 31, 2010 — 13 Comments

Singapore at Night

I am off to Singapore in a week for my first visit. I have been invited by the government to give a talk on design thinking and meet with various government and business leaders to talk about the role of design thinking at a national level.

It is interesting to think about national scale design and innovation policy and the person who I believe has done most with this is John Kao with his I20 group of 25 national innovation leaders. There seems to be a group of small to medium size countries that are committed to building innovation infrastructure to drive economic growth and I wonder what are the key elements for success in this endeavor?

Finland is a great example of a country that has done many of the right things. It has an integrated design and innovation policy and has created new institutions like Aalto University to facilitate greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. What is not clear is whether this is actually generating increased numbers of innovative companies or increased economic growth.

I have been wondering whether top down government policy is what really makes the difference or whether instead there are emergent characteristics that determine a nation or region’s success in the global innovation economy. When I look at places that have generated significant innovation in the past- London, New York, Paris, Silicon Valley, Florence, Rome, they all seem to have been successful ‘fusion cities’ (or regions) that benefited from ideas flowing in from the outside and the interaction of diverse populations. That’s why I think cities like Singapore, Shanghai and Mumbai may one day be seen as equally productive innovation hotspots. Each of these cities has the opportunity to help translate ideas and forces that exist in the world for the rapidly expanding Asian market. The mix of ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ helps ideas mutate in the way that they must to create relevant innovations.

How will the western concept of brand mutate to serve Asian markets? How will the idea of social networking mutate within the community minded societies of Asia? Will social entrepreneurship be different in Asia? Will there be Asian Einsteins and Steve Jobs’?

I wonder whether these and many other questions will be answered by cities like Singapore that actively promote a fusion of outside and inside and that are positioned as hubs in the Asian network?

Tim Brown


13 responses to Design nations

  1. Welcome to Singapore!

    In terms of executing at a national level – Singapore has been often described as a corporation rather than a nation. The government is convinced by Design Thinking and you will see first hand how a lot of resources are now channelled that way – as a competitive firm would chase after gaining an advantage. For example, in a parallel to your example of Finland’s Aalto University, Singapore is setting up a Singapore University of Technology and Design (in collaboration with MIT) with a focus on crossing disciplines. That said, we don’t have the same heritage (say for example, of an Aalto to name the university after.)

    Yet there are limits to what a government can do. As Singapore’s government has realized with promoting entrepreneurship, there are softer aspects of support (often referred to as the “ecosystem”) that are better when evolved and nurtured from ground up. In spite of the influx of talent from overseas and a shift in mindset in the younger generation towards greater tolerance for failure, there are still many who don’t think Singapore can ever produce a Zuckerberg, Jobs or Eames.

    But I am optimistic. I think we can – eventually.

    As a volunteer keen to help build the support system for design thinkers and entrepreneurs in Singapore (I volunteer with TEDxSingapore and co-founded the MIT Enterprise Forum of Singapore), I am thrilled you will be coming and more importantly that it will be a lecture open to the public. The greatest impact on Singapore will start from seeding change in mindsets – and I look forward to your talk doing that to (at least) hundreds of people in Singapore.

  2. Every city, every place requires different solutions to different issues and problems. It is really heartening to know that there are still many who aspire to design for good.

    p.s. am really looking forward to your talk on wednesday!

  3. Hi Tim, Can’t believe you’re in Singapore for a talk! Design thinking in Singapore makes my heart jump and then rage because I only found out today, and there are exactly 0 tickets left for this event. Never mind, I will fight who I have to.

    So in the cross between top down governance and cross-disciplinary collaboration: If a top down policy directs how collaboration will look like — when and where it should occur, between whom it should take place — does this turn into a quantum-type/copenhagen problem where once you observe or try to direct innovation, innovation ceases to exist?

    Anyway, can’t wait to hear your opinions, hopefully in person, but on paper will do too!

  4. Hi Tim!

    Glad to have you come to Singapore! Am definitely looking forward to your talk on Wednesday.

    In any case, while you’re in town, I was wondering if you’d like to come visit our local Hackerspace? Like many hackerspaces around the world, knowledge discovery through play and exploration are things we here at HackerspaceSG are really keen on. Our members are a diverse mix of people, and all share a passion for learning and sharing ideas, projects and crazy hacks.

    So yes, it’ll be great if you’d like to pop by! I’m pretty sure the community and members would love to have you around for an evening!

  5. Hi Tim,

    Great talk, fascinating stuff. Especially enjoyed your example of Isambard Brunel as an early design thinker, as the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the SS Great Britain are close to my heart having spent my undergraduate days in Bristol. 🙂

  6. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for flying all the way down to speak about DT to all of us. I was about to pass my questions to the front but the emcee decided to round off the Q&A session.
    Q1:We are all used to practising convergent thinking and in your book, Divergent thinking is the new practice where instead of narrowing down choices, we create more choices to have bolder ideas (I believe that is the aim of Divergent Thinking). However, reality is such that we will have to decide on ONE option. How would you link Divergent Thinking to that one option which gets to be implemented?
    Q2: How do we convince senior management that we need to employ Design Thinking as a tool to improve user experience in the systems that we work with in our daily lives is as important as customer experience? I believe that as new employees get trained, they go through tremendous unnecessary pain to learn systems which are generally all unfriendly? Has IDEO ever worked with companies to improve internal customer experience?

  7. Tim,

    I am such a fan of your work and just wanted to thank you for this great post. As a lawyer and policy person, I find that lawyers get trapped in linear thought patterns and prescriptive problem solving, while design thinking and collaboration could be so incredibly beneficial. I read your book “Change by Design,” and have been having fun incorporating design concepts into my legal training.

    I would love to find out more about Aalto University & its cross-disciplinary collaboration methodology. As you mentioned, it would also be great to find numbers of innovative companies or increased economic growth, so hopefully you will be writing about that if and when the data surfaces.



  8. I had fun! Was hoping to hear more about how IDEO does deep dives or some of the compelling insights from the research. The rounding up of utility bills was terrific example 🙂 would have loved to hear more success (and even failure) stories! Also very heartening to see the turn out. It was amazing.

  9. Hi Tim,

    I just saw this post and would love to hear about your experiences in the Lion City. In 2008-2009 I taught there as a Fulbright Scholar and have been wanting to go back and spend some time studying design thinking. The perception I gleaned from my students and friends was that there are cultural aspects that can encourage innovation and risk-taking, while the educational system tends to focus on rote memorization and not questioning instructors (with luck, the newer post-secondary schools some of your commenters mentioned will try to move beyond that model, which is so common in elementary and secondary schools).

    Singapore is an exciting place to be now and seems poised to be a global center of innovation…I’d be interested in reading what you thought during and after your visit.

  10. Oh toward the end of the talk by tim brown at Esplanade Singapore, there was something about how curious it would be to see what it would take for Singapore to transform the nation into design thinkers. heres my cheeky irreverent reply: Take a leaf from the japs when they were trying to lower air con and power consumption during the summer. Make tiny little badgets or pins for everyone. So they can have a tag that says “im design thinking, please dont shoot me for being creative” 🙂 LOL

  11. Fantastic note, Tim;

    been following IDEO and your own comments for a while, now. I wish more firms and organizations thought like you do.

    I live in Mumbai, and I firmly believe that it is design – dually the transparency and layering of an idea, and the monolithic nature of its existence – that can build new centers of excellence; even with the red-tape and the general difficulty in getting things done around these parts.

  12. Hi Tim
    its always great to hear and read your thoughts …
    Well i believe innovation would have both ways of finding its realization both top down and bottom up In a fluid city like mumbai where policies often don’t find ground realities even in cases where the perceptional control is pretty visible, people as individuals find their own solutions.Now i wont term it as good or bad innovation as it has its own cause and effect but definitely its the forming of a system a culture which at a meta level creates its own patterns of cultural behaviour.So would a dweller of slums in mumbai be considered any less than a high flying designer in Singapore in terms of contextual innovation;i suppose not.
    For mumbai to develop its own eco system of innovation its critical to accept these ground realities of economics, social behavior and political outcomes and that’s where a true collaboration is possible.
    As a Mumbaikar and a design thinker i seriously do hope that some day Design would take a accountability beyond its pseudo capitalistic self promoting the gluttony of private business houses and look at creating real & unique value in its own context.
    Design has the capacity of providing this new notion of growth far different from the growth skewed heavily on economics.
    Can the community aspect of slums be designed for the space design of urban cities or can low cost innovation on aspects of health and education be exchanged with the needy?i have observed that there are strong points of convergence (by will or forced)between the economically classified haves and have nots in aspects like religious and cultural celebrations, music(bollywood) & not to forget the mumbai traffic ( where a high end sedan rubs shoulders with a bicycle)This convergence can perhaps become the inception of a harmonious design.
    I am a believer of design and would tend to strongly believe that design thinking can provide a comprehensive and sustainable innovation model.
    Vishal kapoor

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Perspective - November 2, 2010

    National design and innovation policies: a user centered perspective…

    I’ve been chewing over Tim Brown’s post on Design Nations since I came across it for the first time yesterday morning.  He touches upon Aalto University and Finland in his musings viz., Finland is a great example of a country that has done …

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