Dream Cars Meet Harsh Reality

That’s what Phil Patton at the New York Times thought about the concept cars at the Detroit Auto Show. In the article I found some insight as well as some assumptions we can toss out…

But this year, dark economic clouds seem to have cast a shadow even over the designers displaying their ideas at the Detroit auto show.

No question, the mood of the economy cannot be ignored in strategic design exercises. But then they go on to say…

Concept cars are expensive to build and budgets are tight.

Wrong. The way they are traditionally created are expensive design exercises: built to be actual working cars. But instead of an executive command to “only show sober, product development concepts” the executive command could have been “show cars that illustrate our strategic direction, continue to wow the audience, and spend 1/4 of what you usually spend.” Then the design staff has a meaty challenge. If the shape is the concept, they don’t need mechanical bits or even interiors, just dark windows. If the drive train is the concept, rip off the body. Concept cars are cool, but the practice of showing concept cars is now decades old and could use a little shaking up.

said Bryan Nesbitt, General Motors’ vice president for North American design. “You can no longer just throw a wild concept out there. You have to have a story.”

A concept that lacks a context is simply confusing. For instance, in 2004 Chrysler showed the ME Four-Twelve, a midengine supercar with a V-12 engine. Though it excited horsepower-hungry showgoers, it had no place in the company’s business plan and didn’t mesh with the image that the Chrysler brand was trying to project.

There’s an excellent insight, a concept that did not follow the constraint of strategic relevance or brand perception.

Mazda has drawn attention in recent years for some of the most provocative concept cars, but it did not display any concepts at all this year. Laurens van den Acker, general manager of Mazda’s design division, said that was because the company was now busy applying to production cars the themes it had developed in design studies.

That’s like saying, “We don’t have time to be strategic, our tactics are so good.” I bet that’s just rhetoric, and not showing concepts is just a money-saving action.

The article goes on to look at how the 1933 Auto Show helped companies discover how valuable concept cars could be, a good read.

Interview With Me Discussing Tangible Futures

Stuart Candy, researcher at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies and research fellow of The Long Now Foundation, asked me a few questions about tangible futures and published the interview on his blog. While I’m more focused on near-term concept design these days, it was helpful for me to reflect on why and how I was originally drawn to the practice…

…So we started to consider this problem through the lens of our design experience, asking, “How can we help managers experience futures and strategy so that it can more substantially be understood, shared, and acted on?” The working definition became: Tangible Futures are the output of applying design-fueled disciplines like visualization, drama, and film to represent futures and strategies.

Finally, The Iraq War Ends

Iraq War Ends

…not really, unfortunately. But that was the headline on a “special edition” of the “New York Times” today. The credibility was in question from the start, as the paper was handed out free at the subway which is never the case with the Times. The production is quite accurate, but a quick glance at the date reveals July 4, 2009.

I love it as a clear example of a tangible future. But the editorial is so far to the left that we’re not really fooled. Only those that already hold these positions will think, “Yes! This is what we could create by July of next year!” So essentially, it’s propaganda. Personally I would have liked to see an editorial stance much closer to reality but with enough difference to be inspirational. (Just for the record, I’m fairly progressive socially, and excited about the results of the elections.)

Of course, we’re talking about the future, so I could be completely wrong about what happens.

Agile with a capital/lowercase A

It looks like agile software development is having the same growing pains, expressed through semantics, as the design field (or the Design field). It’s the perceived misapplication of language that catches my eye…

Jason Gorman argued that the meaning of Agile was ambiguous and was being inappropriately applied to a very wide range of approaches like Six Sigma and CMMi. He also argued that “Agile”, “evolutionary”, and “lean” (as in Lean software development) did not mean the same thing in practice, even though they are all lumped under the banner of “Agile” – possibly for marketing purposes. Gorman argued that process-oriented methods, especially methods that incrementally reduce waste and process variation like Six Sigma, have a tendency to limit an organisation’s adaptive capacity (their “slack”), making them less able to respond to discontinuous change – i.e., less agile. He also argues in later posts that “agile”, “lean” and “evolutionary” are strategies that need to be properly understood and appropriately applied to any specific context. That is, there is a time to be “agile”, a time to be “lean” and a time to be “evolutionary”.

Fascinating, but a nuance that will be completely lost on business clients who are focused on other matters. But just as IDEO shows what they do instead of only talking about it, I think making it all tangible will be a way around the semantic mess. I’d like to see the Agile Alliance produce a “shopping-cart“-like video of an agile project.

IDEO’s UMPC Vision Video

A nice example of what I call a tangible future. I like how it starts with more conventional examples and then ends with others that have believable gestures but without clear intentions, which could make it a good conversation starter between IDEO (the design firm) and Intel (the client).

Idealized Design

Idealized design is a way of thinking about change that is deceptively simple to state: In solving problems of virtually any kind, the way to get the best outcome is to imagine what the ideal solution would be and then work backward to where you are today. This ensures that you do not erect imaginary obstacles before you even know what the ideal is.

…not unlike tangible futures.

Link courtesy of Austin.

Tangible Futures in Denver, Wednesday, August 16th

I’ll be giving a presentation on Tangible Futures in Denver next Wednesday, August 16th. Since giving the talk in Philadelphia I’ve refined the how-to part of the talk quite a bit with more perspective of the people on the receiving end of this work. If you’re in the neighborhood and interested I’d love to meet you…

Tangible Futures: Creating Designs of the Future to Influence the Present

Edward de Bono has said, “You can analyse the past, but the future has to be designed.” As designers, we have influence not only over the products and services people will use in the future but also in how companies plan for the future. We can improve the quality of our influence by using our design skills to more actively anticipate and shape the future. Examples of this vary from auto designers’ concept cars to Bruce Mau’s Massive Change. These “tangible futures” act as a clear, compelling vision that helps organizations make progress.

More info…

Jamais Cascio on the Role of Artifacts in Futurism

Artifacts from the Future: “If scenario creation was the poster-boy for futurism in the mid-1990s, artifact creation looks to play that role for mid-2000s futurism…. I can’t imagine doing a major futurist project now without using some kind of tangible element of the future, even if it’s just an article from a magazine of a decade or three hence. These artifacts provide an anchor for the recipients, not in the sense of holding them back, but in the sense of giving them a grounding from which to explore.

Tangibly understanding your retirement

Our retirement is one topic where all of us think many years into the future. In my tangible futures presentation I’ve been showing a typical screen from my online retirement account. It shows how much money I have saved, where it’s invested, the rate of return, my asset allocation, and so on. It’s a great tool for helping me understand my investments, but it fails to help me understand what I’m saving for, and therefore if I’ll have enough money to retire the way I’d like.

Then I show a more tangible concept I like to call Cancun 2035:

It’s just a concept, but immediately it signals to me what a great retirement I have awaiting me and how close I am to it financially. I don’t know if Cancun will actually be a nice place to retire to in 2035, or how much it will cost, or what the rate of inflation is, but my financial services company can help me with that. Then they’d be my retirement services company, a big identity and capability change for an organization, but one that might be facilitated by creating a new vision for themselves using a tangible future like this one.

Recently I noticed Ameriprise is giving away a Dream Book that does help you plan for what you’ll do in retirement. Unfortunately the book is mostly text and not more tangible, but they’re headed in the right direction.

Creating organizational vision with storytelling and artifacts

The Institute for the Future couldn’t get clients to read its trend forecasts. So it started giving away prescient product ideas instead.

These are great examples of the tangible part of what we’ve been calling Tangible Futures. The IFTF objects seem like good ways to, as they say, ‘start conversations’ about alternate futures. The intention behind our Tangible Futures is a little different. We want to help change the way organizations think about their capabilities and identity so they’re more capable of innovating. The one key difference is that instead of making the artifacts ourselves we think these artifacts are more likely to result in actual innovation if we help companies create their own artifacts. More on this in a moment.

In either case, the conundrum is that we need the tangible artifacts to stimulate the imagination, but then we need to immediately focus away from the artifact to what is required internally for an organization to produce it.

Why? Because innovative companies make innovative products. That sounds obvious, but some companies want to ignore the company part and jump right to the products. To illustrate the difference, consider (surprise) the iPod. Is the difference between the iPod/iTunes ecosystem that Apple had a better idea than everyone else? No. Other companies had already released components of this system, such as hard drive-based mp3 players and online music stores. Sony in particular was the logical one to lead the way, since they possess significantly more portable electronics design, manufacturing, distribution, and retail expertise than Apple. Sony also happens to own a handful of record companies. Apple’s advantage comes down to management innovation. They took smart risks and created effective collaboration across disciplines and groups, where is one place Sony definitely failed. Regardless of which was the better product, the more innovative company won.

Artifacts from the future are highly useful to inspire us into action, but ultimately the challenge is managing people to execute on the innovative ideas. How do we get beyond the focus on the artifact? One approach could be to embed the artifact within a strong story. To use a classic example, we can conjure the story of Adam & Eve using the apple with two bites taken from it. The apple is an artifact that represents a wealth of concepts, and yet our focus is not on the apple, it’s on the people and events.

To develop a corporate vision, scenario planning is a great way for groups to co-create stories about the future. If at the same time the groups create artifacts that conjure those stories, they possess a tangible conveyance, communicating the vision necessary for others to align their work in the same direction. That’s what Tangible Futures is all about.

GE dares to dream of the future

In my tangible futures presentation last week, I repeated a statement I’ve written here, that sometime during the second half of the 20th century, American companies forgot how to dream. I’m happy to contradict that statement with a clear example: GE.

In Growth as a Process, Jeffrey Immelt reveals the process that led to their Ecomagination initiative. Not only is it not greenwashing or a flimsy vision statement, it grew out of their strategic planning process and has metrics that benefit the company and the environment, while bravely looking several years into the future.

The whole article is full of valuable insights, but this section is worth quoting:

The very economics [of scarcity], by the way, that drove you to read the demand for organic growth. You’re trying to make tailwind out of the headwind.

Exactly right. So we plugged that input from S-1 [GE's strategic planning process] into the Commercial Council, which studied it for nine months. We met with people from NGOs, government offices, and other relevant organizations. We brought a lot of assets together, including our knowledge of public policy and how it gets influenced. Once we had done our homework, we launched ecomagination with 17 products we could point to. As always, we were metric driven. We said that our $10 billion of revenue from products tapping renewable energy sources like the sun and wind had to go to $20 billion in five years. The $750 million we were spending on R&D for clean technologies had to go to a billion and a half. Our own greenhouse gas emissions had to come down by 1% by 2012.


Has there been any push back from your customers, some of whom I can imagine would rather stick to their carbon-burning ways?

There were plenty of guys on our energy team who hated this in the beginning because half of their customers were saying they hated it. Never mind that half of the customers loved it. We just kept talking: “Here’s where we’re going. Here’s why we think it’s good for both of us. And it’s going to come someday anyhow, so let’s get ahead of it.” We hosted what we call a dreaming session in the summer of 2004 with the 30 biggest utilities. Some of the top players in the industry—CEOs like Jim Rogers and David Rutledge—came to Crotonville and heard Jeff Sachs from Columbia talk about global warming. There were other speakers who were pretty compelling on different topics, and breakout sessions. I floated the idea of doing something on public policy on greenhouse gases, and we had a good debate.

In part, ecomagination helped to show the organization that we can do these things. The company has been great in terms of management practice but more reluctant when it comes to what I would call business innovation. Ecomagination was one way to show the organization that it’s OK to stick your neck out and even to make customers a little bit uncomfortable.

WorldChanging images of the future

My colleague Zap pointed me to some of WorldChanging’s links to images of the future…

Pantopicon’s FFWD>> competition presents a series of themes, and asks for images set in 2005 and 2025 as illustration. (reference)

The Onion’s 2056 issue.

Alex Steffen — in a post wonderfully similar to MIG’s ideas on tangible futuresitemizes tools for delineating the future.

The expansion of CAD designs with motion, time, and plot.

(Image is Edward Burtynsky’s Oxford Tire Pile No. 7)

Concept car dreams

Since I’ve been thinking about tangible futures and why companies should envision the future (including car companies) I thought a visit to the Auto Show here in New York was worthwhile. The biggest surprise for me was the Toyota exhibit. While I love their process, I’m usually bored with their high quality but plain cars. But their concept cars wow’d me.

I’ve been thinking about concept cars for a few years now and how they’re a good way for companies to practice foresight. Given my advocacy of Toyota’s production system and their current success, it’s very convenient to point to their concept cars as a contributor. I can’t say how much these concepts have contributed to cause, but I certainly found their differentiated concepts a compelling correlation.

Most every concept at the show this year followed this formula:

  1. Include a selection of next generation technologies
  2. Wrap them up in a pretty styled interior and exterior

As a group they were fun to look at but failed to inspire. We know certain technology is coming, we expect it. And the styling is the same thing we’ve been seeing for years. But what Toyota did was different. They asked, “What if the car was just as much about transportation as about entertainment? Then let’s design the car with an NBA theme and fill it with five video displays all hooked up to a video game console…

And they asked, “What if the car was just as much about transportation as about socializing? Then the car should be designed as a portable lounge that puts limos to shame…

To me this represented the difference between merely combining engineering with styling and doing experience design. Rather than merely being safer or faster or better looking, you could feel how these cars would lead to a qualitatively different automotive experience, enhancing your life in a new way. That is the power of tangible futures.