I spent last week in London at Imperial College where earlier this year I was appointed adjunct professor in the Innovation Group of the Tanaka Business School. As you can imagine, in such a world-class institution there are quite a number of exciting projects going on. But one in particular caught my attention.
In early June, Imperial College and the Royal College of Art announced the creation of a new center - Design-London - to bring together the disciplines of design, engineering, technology and business to address jointly the challenges of innovation in an increasingly global, competitive economy. Design-London aims to "create an innovation triangle between design (represented by the Royal College of Art), engineering and technology (represented by the Imperial College Faculty of Engineering), and business and management (represented by Imperial's Tanaka Business School)."
Two sides of this triangle are familiar territory. For the last few years I have been immersed in IBM's efforts to bring technology and engineering practices to the world of business and complex organizations in general. As part of this initiative, we have been working with universities to help create a new discipline - Services Sciences is the name we have been using in IBM - to conduct research and develop educational programs to better address these problems. Such a new discipline must invariably bring together technology and engineering with business and management, which is why I chose to become affiliated with two such interdisciplinary departments - MIT's Engineering Systems Division and Imperial College's Innovation Group.
The third leg of this triangle is very intriguing - namely the inclusion of Design and the Royal College of Arts as a full partner in Design-London. What are creative disciplines - and a college of arts, for heaven's sake - doing side-by-side with the hard, analytical disciplines that are charged with pushing the economy into the future - engineering and management, technology and business? You are mixing the people who run companies and build things with the creative types?
But the more I thought about it, the more I started appreciating the sheer brilliance of this move. After all, we are talking about innovation.
As it turns out, I had a free afternoon when I first arrived in London and spent part of it at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which I had not been to in years. The V&A, as it is commonly referred to, describes itself as "the world's greatest museum of art and design, with collections unrivalled in their scope and diversity." As I walked through the V&A, explored the rich diversity of its collections and later read about its history and founding principle - "to make works of art available to all, to educate working people and to inspire British designers and manufacturers" - I realized that the V&A could just as easily be described as a Museum of Innovation. Clearly, design and the creative arts in general have long played a big role in initiatives aimed at fostering innovation.
The story of how Design-London came about is fascinating. Some time last year, Gordon Brown, - at the time chancellor of the exchequer, the cabinet minister responsible for all economic and financial matters, and now the UK's new prime minister - was attending the summer design show in London and got into a discussion with Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Arts. After spending an hour and a half looking around, Brown said, “You are trying to distract me from the economy,” to which Sir Christopher replied, “This is the new economy.”
Gordon Brown agreed. He actually had already commissioned a review of how to make UK business more competitive in the challenging global economy by building on one of the UK’s main strengths – its creative capabilities. Sir Gordon Cox, chairman of the UK’s Design Council, led the study, which produced a report titled the Cox Review of Creativity in Business: Building on the UK’s Strengths. The study called for organizing a series of high-profile centers of creativity and innovation throughout the UK, with a central hub in London. That is how Design-London came to be.
The report’s Executive Summary is a very good overview, and starts out by saying:
“This review was triggered by concerns about how UK businesses can face up to the challenge of a world that is becoming vastly more competitive. Various government initiatives have looked at related areas like technology and enterprise, but the connecting thread of creativity has not received the attention it warrants, despite the fact that our creative capabilities – one of the UK's undoubted strengths – lie at the very core of our ability to compete. Technology that is not carried through into improved systems or successful products is opportunity wasted; enterprise that fails to be sufficiently creative is simply pouring more energy into prolonging yesterday’s ideas. Creativity, properly employed, carefully evaluated, skillfully managed and soundly implemented, is a key to future business success – and to national prosperity.”
As I thought more about all this, I realized that design and creativity bring three critical attributes to technology and business innovation: synthesis, that is, a holistic, systems approach to problem solving and solutions creation; style, which I think of as embodying a particular model or point of view in the organization and its work; and humanity, which reminds us all that whatever is being developed - products, services, organizations, business processes - has to appeal to people - customers, as well as employees, partners and everyone else involved in the innovation ecosystem.
These attributes are particularly important given the very complex, fast-changing systems, organizations and artifacts that the Internet and information technologies are enabling us to build. Engineering and management help us address the more analytical, quantifiable aspects, including quality, productivity, costs, time-to-market, revenue and profits.
Design adds the more subjective - and equally important - dimensions of innovation. Namely: whatever is being created should not just look like a bunch of individual components, but needs to hang together as a coherent whole; it must embody a distinct point of view or personality that differentiates it from what everybody else is creating using similar components; and it must appeal to the marketplace – that is, to the people out there whom you want to attract.
For the last twenty years, regions and governments have watched with envy the innovation success of Silicon Valley, and aimed to create something similar in their midst. Almost all such efforts have failed, for the very simple reason that the Silicon Valley model exists within a very specific geographical, historical and economic context, which is just about impossible to recreate elsewhere.
Design-London, on the other hand, is taking the seemingly radical step of building on the strengths of London - its history, culture, tradition, infrastructure, diversity and talent base - and coming up with its very own model – the innovation triangle. It looks to me like a bold, elegant and brilliant step that is destined to be very successful.