Expression is not Creativity

Put a group of diverse experts working together to solve a problem (this sounds like design practice) and chances are that somebody will be miffed by the end of it. Excluding fine tuned and prepared teams, I’d say this is more the norm than the exception.

Such meetings, and I’m focusing on creative meetings at the beginning of a project; require people to switch between two gears. Initially the M.O. is to be light hearted, emotional, playful and non-judgemental and then, when the ideas are collected, one becomes a bit more analytic, rational and focused in order to select the best. And this is where the conflict tends to start. The “creative types” become frustrated with the apparent nitpicking from the “technical types” and the “technical types” wishing the “creatives” would come up with more realistic stuff. [1]

It is common to say that technical specialists (e.g. electronic engineers) are less creative than the “creative types” (e.g. artists). I think this is an huge generalization that equates expression with creativity. “Creativity” involves some sort of fitting between problem and solution, “Expression” requires no problem nor it attempts be a “solution”.

Like many, I also believe that everybody can be creative. However, I think that this creativity manifests itself in different ways and therefore, different types of creativity would be best employed at specific stages of the creation process.
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The Sources of Innovation, review

I´ve recently read “The Sources of Innovation”, from Eric von Hippel (its free to download at his website and can be bought at TheBookDepository.co.uk ) and despite not being all that recent (1988) it is really something I recommend. Especially if you are after a structured view on innovation, his academic research can be good medicine against some of the more superficial talk on the topic. Eric von Hippel is “(…)a Professor of Technological Innovation in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and also a Professor in MIT´s Engineering Systems Division” specialized on “research related to the nature and economics of distributed and open innovation. (…) developing and teaching about practical methods that individuals, open user communities, and firms can apply to improve their product and service development processes”.

You get the point.

Even if the basic premise of the book (product innovations are often accomplished not by product manufacturers, but by users and suppliers) is not entirely new in the current days, it is very well explained and defined. You get to understand the economics of the innovation process, and some hard data is given to underline how fitting the model seems to be.

This work deals with different levels of innovation management, from managerial to policy making and for me it was an excellent primer on innovation management. Its age and enduring relevance lead me to believe that it’s a good place to start looking for some formal knowledge on the topic

A quick overview of the topics you will find:
– The Functional Source of Innovation (In a given product innovation, who is responsible for it. Producers, Suppliers or Users? Or a combination of more than one?)

– Variations in the Source of Innovation (How does the model apply to different industries, markets, business cultures, etc)

– An Economic Explanation (The simplest and most efficient way to predict who will be engaged in a given product innovation. Basically, it will be the stakeholder that extracts the biggest economic benefit. I am, naturally oversimplifying this…)

– Understanding The Distributed Innovation Process: Know-How trading between rivals (how and why do seemingly rival firms trade information between each other. Good introduction to the distributed nature of the innovation process)

– Managing the Distributed Innovation Process: Predicting and Shifting the Sources of Innovation (How to influence how distributed innovation happens and how to manage for it. Probably the most hands-on section of the book)

– Implications for Innovation Research (How do the Functional Source of Innovation model and the Distributed Innovation Process hypothesis influence where to look next at in future research)

– Implications for Innovation Management (What are the new considerations for Innovation managers. What to experiment with)

– Implications for Innovation Policy (at the highest level, how can governments and institutions foster and support innovation, in the light of the new information)

Bottom line, if you are trying to advocate for open innovation, this has some real-life stories, backed by scientific data. Can’t get much better than that. Oh, its free.

Workshop “Breathe, Amsterdam”

During my last visit to the Netherlands, there was a workshop on November 18th in Amsterdam, with the people from Combustic, Pachube  and Booreiland. The topic was  the measurement of air quality in Amsterdam and how it could be achieved on a crow-sourced basis.

Each coordinating party zoomed on one aspect, with Casper from Combustic being all about problem solving and bringing the participants together, while Ed (Pachube) was passionate about collection and access of data and the related infra-structure. Sara, who was representing Booreiland, came to talk about their fresh out-of-the-printers book (check it at metaproducts.nl) and how can we design products that take full advantage of the The Internet of Things, with special attention to the user.

To get the ball rolling, there were three really cool presentations on air quality [1]; the making of sensors [2]  and finally the coordination of sensors and actuators for morphing architecture [3].

With these, we got an understanding of methods and techniques of air quality monitoring, the future possibilities of the field and how to integrate the resulting data in adaptive systems.Important questions were raised on the importance of air quality data, how should it be collected, who builds the infrastructure, who funds it, etc…

Now, data collection on a crowdsourced basis has two challenges: the technical accomplishment of designing systems that measure what we want and are cheap enough to spread around, and the management of users motivation to participate. Tech for the first, People for the second. Managing these two is not always easy, as we’ve already learned.

A big part of the workshop was the method developed by Booreiland to design with the user in mind and still make use of the technical advantages of products connected to the Internet. It was a bit challenging to get people to stop thinking about features and tech specs and consider user experience and motivations, but at the end we had some cool ideas and even better, everybody was charged up to meet and work in between the two sessions.

After all, the objective is to get to a working system that could be used to sense and record air quality around Amsterdam.By the end of the workshop, we had decided on which variables to measure, and that we wanted to also measure indoors air quality, to compare it with the exterior.

A number of issues were raised on what constitutes clean air (some pollutants are worse than others, for instance), how to scale up or down the data collection and how manage user participation.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to the fun session of actually getting things working, but i was a nice introduction to the topic of data collection and crowdsourcing.

For those of you interested in following what happens there, I suggest you start paying attention to the Internet of Things Amsterdam MeetUp group.

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My notebook in the Cloud

Just the other day I found a personal treasure: a couple (more than a couple, really) of notebooks of mine, filled with the typical sketches, observations, ideas and so on.
Nothing new here.

What was cool about this find was that it showed me how I have been increasing the scope of my projects and how it reflected actual changes in the practice of the profession.
If in the beginning, I used to focus on physical design aspects, now I’ve learned to devote at least as much energy in figuring out the less tangible consequences of what I work on.
And for a while, I was somehow confused on what I was doing, as my interests were all over the place and not really tied to a somehow traditional practice of design [1].

While I was not sure what kind of designer I was, I took the simple step of taking a look at all the things that make me tick (people, arts, technology and the backstage of life) and derive my definition from there.
I’m a designer that likes these things and will study them for a long time. Simple.

So I read about these topics, I talk about them with friends and in general I spend a good time studying them. In practice, I’m consciously building up knowledge and skills for my profession. It would be inefficient not to tell people about what I learn and care about, especially if I already devote so much time to it. Notebooks, while great for expression, are more difficult to share. Blogs, on the other hand, were made for this.

With the cloud being all the rage (I’m a big fan of google docs, Dropbox and SugarSync), it made all the sense to put my observations up in here.

We know the world is changing, we know it is happening fast and we know it carries plenty of momentum. Paying attention to this seems the smart thing to do.

[1] In hindsight, perhaps I had a too historically bound vision of product design. I realize today that despite the marketing and the buzz words, the profession probably did not change its essence, but merely its toolbox, so to say. But that’s another discussion.