Toward the end of 2010, The Economist published The World in 2011, its annual issue with predictions for the following year on the variety of topics it normally covers. As summarized in the introductory article From the Editor, the 2011 predictions presented a balanced view of the next year, articulating both the magnitude of the challenges we face as well as the major opportunities for progress:
“It will be a tale of two economies: a rich world struggling with a weak and jobless recovery, and an emerging world growing four times as fast. Europe will be divided between a solid centre of its euro zone and a wobbly periphery. . . Look at politics, and you will often see two clashing forces, too . . . America faces gridlock between the White House and Congress . . . A sense of division, and frustration, will also prevail in international affairs. . . For all the talk of co-operation on global issues . . . it will often seem like a zero-sum world. . . But the gloom will be overdone. The year ahead will produce striking examples of the power of technology and imagination to address fundamental problems of the age. . .”
This was the 25th edition of “The World in . . . .” To mark the occasion, The Economist also included a section on The World in 2036, peering 25 years ahead on a variety of topics, including the economy, technology, religion and collaboration.
I particularly enjoyed reading Design Takes Over, the 2036 prediction by Paola Antonelli, senior curator for architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She starts her short and elegant article, by first explaining the importance of design in our increasingly fast changing and complex world:
“There are still people who believe that design is just about making things, people and places pretty. In truth, design has spread like gas to almost all facets of human activity, from science and education to politics and policymaking. For a simple reason: one of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change.”
“Designers stand between revolutions and everyday life. When the internet happened, they created interfaces with buttons and hyperlinks that enabled us all to use it. Designers make disruptive innovations manageable and approachable, so that they can be embraced and assimilated into life. And they never forget functionality and elegance.”
I totally agree. Given the central roles that complex systems and disruptive innovations have played throughout my career, I have learned to rely on design and systems thinking to help me understand the changes I was dealing with, as well as their impact on people and organizations.
In addition, design has long played a major role in IBM. Thomas Watson Jr. once said, “Good design is good business” - and he wasn’t just talking about product aesthetics. He brought in revolutionary designers and design thinkers such as Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand, Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames to help shape not just IBM’s products, but also its culture. Noyes described his job at IBM as “a curator of corporate character.” And Charles Eames, in particular, gave the 20th century some of its best thinking about the deep nature of design, embodied in his famous quote: “Design is the appropriate combination of materials to solve a problem. The details are not the details. They make the design.”
As Ms Antonelli points out, it is easier for people to appreciate design when it comes to beautiful, physical objects: a car, a bridge, a building, a dress, a pair of shoes, a set of dishes, and so on. But, it is harder to appreciate the critical role of design when it comes to systems, services, information, organizations, and other somewhat abstract, ethereal entities. Their very nature is vague. They are hidden from view in plain sight, like a kind of dark matter. Yet, they account for the bulk of the growing complexity in our daily lives.
It is precisely these abstract, vague entities that I believe Ms Antonelli had in mind when she wrote:
“In 25 years designers will be at the nexus of things. They will not be divvied up according to their reductive speciality (graphic, product, furniture, so 20th-century!). On the contrary, like physics, design will be loosely separated between theoretical and applied.”
“Theoretical designers will be exquisite generalists - a bit like French philosophers, but ready to roll up their sleeves. Applied designers will visualise complex infrastructures and systems so that scientists, policymakers and the general public can manage and influence them; they will bring economy and common sense to the production of consumer goods.”
Let me give a few examples from my recent work where I believe that such theoretical and applied designers will play crucial roles.
Services is one of the areas in which I have been most involved over the past decade. The services sector is by far the largest in the global economy, comprising about 65 percent of the world’s overall GDP, and between 70 and 80 percent in countries in advanced economy countries. Most of the working population in such countries are employed in services in one way or another - roughly two thirds of all jobs in Brazil, Japan and the European Union and around 80 percent in the UK and the US.
The major advances in digital technologies over the past decades are now enabling us to significantly improve the productivity and quality of services through science, engineering and management. The impact of such advances in our 21st century information and service economy could be as profound as the impact of the Industrial Revolution over the past two centuries.
What are the key design objectives of a good service? Product excellence and competitive costs are absolutely necessary for services, just as they are for physical goods. But they are not enough. Services exist in interactions among people, who are both the providers and the consumers of services. Therefore, the overriding design objective for good service systems has to be a positive customer experience. Improved customer service, delivered with higher quality and efficiency must be the objective of a successful services oriented organization, whether it is a business, hospital or government function.
While advances in technology are now enabling us to bring major innovations to services, most of the really hard issues are not technical at all. They are human. A well designed, well engineered and well managed service system must be primarily centered and optimized around people, be it a patient in a healthcare system, a customer of a business, or a citizen dealing with the government.
Another area I have been very involved in is Smarter Cities. According to this 2007 report issued by the UN Population Division, in 2008 the world’s population reached a major landmark: “For the first time in history the urban population will equal the rural population of the world and, from then on, the world population will be urban in its majority.”
The UN report adds that “between 2007 and 2050, the world population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion, passing from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion (United Nations, 2008). At the same time, the population living in urban areas is projected to gain 3.1 billion, passing from 3.3 billion in 2007 to 6.4 billion in 2050. Thus, the urban areas of the world are expected to absorb all the population growth expected over the next four decades while at the same time drawing in some of the rural population.”
“It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that ‘history’ has been, at root, the story of our planet's urbanization. And it's a story that is now moving a lot faster…. We are adding the equivalent of seven New Yorks to the planet every year.”
“This unprecedented urbanization is both an emblem of our economic and societal progress - especially for the world's emerging nations - and a huge strain on the planet's infrastructure. It's a challenge felt urgently by mayors, heads of economic development, school administrators, police chiefs and other civic leaders. The challenges these leaders face - educating their young, keeping citizens safe and healthy, attracting and facilitating commerce and enabling the smooth flow of planes, trains, cars and pedestrians - are only being compounded by the global downturn.”
Cities are arguably the ultimate system of systems. They can be viewed as consisting of three major classes of systems: infrastructure, business and people.
Infrastructure systems include transportation, utilities, communications, water management and energy, among others. The key objective for such public infrastructure systems is to significantly improve their quality, efficiency and sustainability.
A city must also be an attractive place for conducting business, as ultimately this will be its key source of jobs and wealth. A smarter city requires a smarter government, in particular one with economic development policies to attract and retain companies and start new ventures. This requires a well thought-out approach to planning, product and services regulations, labor policies, openness to foreign trade and investment, taxation, ease of starting new companies, and so on.
But in the end, the top asset of a city is its human capital, its ability to attract and retain talented people. Doing so requires attention to a number of basic human services, like education, health care and public safety. But it also includes a rich variety of social, community and cultural services that will appeal to the people and families from all over the world that the city wants to attract, both as residents and visitors.
What are the overall design objectives for such a complex system of systems? What are the key values around which you want to optimize the overall system? Technology, science and engineering will prove of little value if we don’t have a common set of goals that the different parts of the system are working towards. Indeed, it is instructive that those who analyze complex systems talk about the importance of defining a system’s “design point.”
In the end, a city’s design objectives and key values must be embodied in something like quality of life. A number of surveys try to distill quality of life into a single number, a liveability index against which they rank cities around the world.
Some such indices are relatively simple. The Economist bases its most liveable city rankings on just five criteria: stability, healthcare, culture & environment, education and infrastructure. Other indices, such as The Global Power City Index, are much more comprehensive.
Services and cities are but two examples of the kinds of complex systems sprouting all around us where good design will be critical to their success.
Science fiction films often portray a future in which computers have taken over. I believe that future will only come about to the extent that our technology-based services, systems and organizations are designed so poorly that we don’t understand how they function, and instead of improving our standard of living and quality of life, they constantly frustrate us with their seemingly arbitrary behaviors.
That is why I so much want to believe in Paola Antonelli’s prediction that by 2036 Design Takes Over. I truly hope her parting words come true:
“This grand new era has already begun. Design is moving centre-stage in the eternal human quest to make beauty out of necessity.”