Fast, Blind and Dense

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Exploring the art of innovation in emerging markets.

Be a Starter from kristrun hjartar on Vimeo.

Happy 2013!

Dear readers, I apologize that I have not been able to write or update this blog in over five months! But I have a good excuse - In addition to traveling around and exploring Asia, I have spent all my spare time helping my wife Krissa to build Starters, our new social fitness startup that (I am excited to say) has just launched its public beta.

From the Press Release:

Starters is a free social fitness iOS app for friends to do and track workouts while motivating together as a team. Aimed at busy individuals who aren’t sure how to start exercising, Starters helps them achieve a consistently active lifestyle with a free daily workout tracker, guided 10-minute interval training videos and real-time peer pressure and rewards from their network of friends.

I have never been more proud of being part of something in my life. Starting a start-up is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming adventure, complete with incredible highs and lows, and that’s just getting to a shipped product which really, is just the very beginning! Now that the first version has shipped I have a little more time to reflect, to come back to this blog and over time, to share my experiences of co-founding a global (we now have users in over 42 countries!) startup in Shanghai.

Please feel free to visit our website here: or download the app from the app store. Just search “Starters” and it will show up on the first screen (YAY for moving up in iTunes SEO!). Also, visit our Facebook page - and like us to receive updates and cool articles on wellness and health. Finally, find us on iTunes here:

As we continue to evolve the product, I’d love your feedback on Starters - from the user experience to the content to the design - with your help we can make Starters even more awesome!

Stay tuned for more thoughts on our Fast, Blind Dense world and experiments to help us thrive in our uncertain future.

China’s Secret Language

Using 大气 (Da Qi) to understand the heart of Chinese art, architecture, design and politics.

In the back seat of a van from Ningbo to Shanghai one of the more striking structures I have seen materialized from the hazy pollution that hung over the Jiaozhou Bay. I pressed my forehead to the warm window of the van watching the structures change shape as we sped nearer. We finally drove past the structures revealing the structure to be a building in the shape of a massive eagle spreading its stark white wings over the hazy, soupy Bay. I felt small.

The restaurant at the middle of the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge that introduced me to Da Qi

I was reminded of standing under the CCTV building in Beijing, a space invader crash landed and looming over me. As the haze again swallowed the buildings I turned to Haul, my friend and fellow designer at IDEO and casually remarked, “Say what you want about Chinese architecture, but it has a strong point of view.” “You mean that the restaurant we just passed has Da Qi” he replied. “Da Qi?”, “What’s that?” I asked. “It’s what you just felt when you saw the building, it’s what you were when you paid for lunch, it is China’s obsession with growth”.

Passing under the imposing CCTV building in Beijing

 “Da Qi (大气) is an ideal” Haul began. It is the ideal of masculinity and Confucianism. What does a person aspire to be? To be Da Qi is to have a big heart, to look past the little things and see the big picture. “Paying for dinner is a gesture of Da Qi, giving expensive gifts is a gesture of Da Qi”. A small village of houses with smashed roofs whizzes past us on the freeway. “Da Qi can become waste and abundance, being able to afford to throw something away or consume without thought. “Da Qi means leaving your village and coming back rich. Or moving your family to the city. I want to be successful and Da Qi is how you show you’ve made it”.

Tall Ceilings, big views and dark paneling create an aura of authority in Chinese architecture. “In my own home I added a façade to my front door to give it the illusion that it goes to the ceiling. It is Da Qi”. “In Beijing all the buildings are low and massive, taking up entire city blocks. It is impossible to see where they end”. Tienanmen Square is an example of vastness created by Da Qi principles, it is humbling and awe-inspiring. Da Qi can be measured by the amount of unused space.

The vast open space of Tienanmen Square

Entering the city limits of Shanghai, we pass a 15m tall egg made of giant fiberglass flowers set in a clearing off the freeway, encircled by the curving off-ramp.  Haul continued.

“Da Qi requires balance as well.” Massiveness without space around it is no longer massive. The Temple of Heaven is an 80m pagoda pointed at the sky and surrounded by acres of carefully manicured gardens with short trees.

The Temple of Heaven set on top of a platform. Massiveness requires space to set it off

The famous ink paintings of mountain landscapes were the height of Chinese ancient art and used large sections of blankness, enveloping the scene with Da Qi. The result is beautiful. It is a study in balance and proportion, positive and negative, Yin and Yang. Space creates authority because you can afford it.

Early Spring, painted in 1072 by Guo Xi is a masterpiece of the Northern Song movement and shows how balance and white space create Da Qi.

Feng Shui owes many of its principles to Da Qi. You place a house with the mountains behind creating massiveness when a visitor walks up. You place the river and garden in front so from the house you have a sweeping view. Opening the gates to the Forbidden City, the entire city is laid before your feet framed perfectly by massive double doors. It is like opening doors into another universe, one that is impossibly grand, impossibly Da Qi.”

The Forbidden City is a study in how the Da Qi of the Meridien Gate hits you in mere moments, even in the 1900’s

We finally stop in front of Haul’s apartment. Our driver, Joe, presses a button and the sliding door opens itself and slides slowly back on its track. I thanked Haul and said goodbye.

The next day I spoke to others in the office about Da Qi and began collecting opinions and ideas.

From blinged-out cell phones to building skyscrapers in record time to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, Da Qi is the heart of modern China, pumping displays of wealth and power to the far corners of the world.

The Beijing Olympic opening ceremony was the ultimate Da Qi coming out party for China to the world

In China’s remote villages Da Qi is used to communicate wealth and power in convenience stores - here is the owner of a small store who told us that she piles boxes of his goods up like a mountain to impress customers.

The owner of this store piles up boxes of goods to create a mountain of products that impress the shopper as walk through the front door

Shanzhai manufacturers of cheap products want their goods to be seen as expensive so they employ every Da Qi trick in the book – except that of quality. They make their products look expensive from a distance using gold painted plastic, rhinestones and all black everywhere. It’s this thinking that leads to entire malls of electronics shouting at the top of their lungs “look at me”, websites that have banners that blink different colors so fast it causes seizures and skylines of 100 Las Vegases.

Mobile phones all screaming for attention with false Da Qi

This has created a unique aesthetic in China, one that is loud and bold. One of my favorite artists, Cai Guo Qiang uses gunpowder to blast paintings onto massive canvases, creates epic dioramas of tigers and cars crashing, even creating a black rainbow over the Thames with a mortar cannon. It doesn’t get more Da Qi than that.

The great contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang’s artwork blends scale, power and awe to impress Da Qi on the viewer

But attitudes to Da Qi are shifting. Wealth is becoming more common so people are turning to generosity and social responsibility to show Da Qi. The themes of the World Expo in Shanghai, Green, Sustainability and embracing a multicultural China reflect the changing attitudes to Da Qi even within the government.

As designers how can we use Da Qi to be relevant in the world’s biggest consumer market?

A return to the roots of Da Qi is to return to real quality, a return to its Confucian roots.

Da Qi design must be generous to people immediately. It must project confidence. It must breathe. It must respect our planet. And it must assume the user is smart and wise.

This is the first installment on Da Qi, stay tuned as I dig deeper.

The Need For Speed

Like the fighter pilot, today’s leaders must make decisions quicker to come out on top.

"I feel the need… The need for speed!"

So says Maverick, played by Tom Cruise in the best movie of all time, Top Gun. But behind the awesome acting and everything 80s there is an important innovation lesson to learn. In modern air combat, jets scream at each other at speeds faster than sound. In this environment there is no time to think - just act. The mayhem and ripping speed of a dogfight is a great laboratory to gain insight into innovation in fast, blind and dense markets.

John Boyd, the real-life Maverick,  was a USAF (United States Air Force) Colonel who did more to advance modern air combat than anyone in the past 5o years.  Although John Boyd never fired a shot in war, his observations and insights into the fluid, chaotic world of aerial combat led him to literally write the book on modern air combat – a book still used in the USAF today. It was his work that led directly to the successful strategy of Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm.

John “40 second” Boyd , USAF Colonel 1927-1997

Business is often compared to war - while I don’t like the analogy it is helpful to think about decision-making in unstable conditions. This is in contrast to traditional markets which are stable. In these markets competitors are competing against each other for a known target audience; like in Chess where the rules don’t change, competitors and consumers are predictable at least a few moves ahead. In this environment it makes sense to gather as much intelligence as possible, create a master strategy and execute flawlessly.

In Chess, players can think many moves ahead because the rules are predictable. This is not true in Fast, Blind and Dense markets.

In Fast, Blind and Dense markets none of the above applies. The market itself is constantly shifting as it evolves toward some unknown equilibrium. As a result, it is not enough to find an audience and continue to deliver the same product or service to them because as the market conditions change (new technologies, new consumer understanding, etc.) their needs will quickly evolve beyond your offering. In this simple way a Fast, Blind and Dense market can put you out of business as quickly as your competition. For example, China and India are markets that are constantly evolving. Doing business there requires constant vigilance and evolution as the market changes. Blockbuster Video and Netflix are another clear example of a Fast market steamrolling slow companies. We’ll examine them shortly.

To successfully survive the Fast, Blind, Dense market while competing with competitors we can turn to John Boyd’s teachings on aerial combat for help. The cornerstone of his teaching is the pilot that can make decisions fastest wins – every time. He noticed that all pilots have to sequentially go through four steps every time they do anything - turn left, dive, or “switch to guns”. Boyd identified and coined an acronym for the steps all pilots must take to make a decision during a dogfight; he called it the OODA loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action). This sequence of decision making is continually repeated until the fight is over.

In a dynamic environment, those that make decisions fastest, wins.

In the same way, businesses must make numerous decisions to launch products, diversify risk, or pull the plug on something, all in the presence of a rapidly changing market. To make decisions takes a huge amount of time for most organizations, especially large ones. For example, companies like P&G, Samsung and others have vertical silo’s like marketing and R&D. These silo’s must come together somehow and share a common point of view around a new offering. Then a leader needs to own the initiative and put their career on the line to pull the trigger; they of course are then incentivized to gather as much data as possible on the subject to provide a cushion should something go wrong. All this hand-wringing adds months, even years of time to get even one decision made. Without the ability to make quick, informed market-based decisions, a fast paced market (where truths change quickly) often puts even great companies into a tailspin from which many never recover.

A typical stage-gate process is too complex and lengthy for fast and chaotic markets. Diagram source: Innovation Playground

Like the modern fighter pilot, business leaders must shorten their decision cycle by moving from lengthy and linear stage-gating of projects to an Adaptive approach that provides flexibility through in-market learning.

It is useful to simplify the process of innovation to two fundamental activities - Creating and Learning. An Adaptive approach simply alternates between those two states. 1. Have an idea and build a prototype (create). 2. Then use the prototype to learn from the market through feedback (learn). 3. Then refine the prototype based on the learnings (create). 4. Simply repeat until you have a market viable offering ready for a scaled launch.

By shortening the time it takes to make a decision and increasing the quality of decisions through in-market learning, adaptive companies are able to innovate and build new offerings much faster than their rivals and easily outmaneuver their competition.

So how has this worked in the real world?

Blockbuster dominated the video rental market using scale but their business model became brittle.

Consider the sad case of Blockbuster Video, a traditional movie rental company that found itself in a Fast, Blind and Dense market without knowing it. Their model of physical stores boomed during the rapid adoption of DVD technology. They successfully consolidated the fragmented and local market of mom & pop video shops through massive availability of movies (I remember going to Blockbuster because they always had the movie that just came out – they had a whole wall of them!) and scale of stores. According to Wikipedia, “at its peak in 2009, Blockbuster had up to 60,000 employees. There are around 1000 Blockbuster stores in the U.S. with locations in 17 countries worldwide”.

The mail in model eliminated late fees and disrupted Blockbuster.

The video rental market by this time was already becoming Fast Blind and Dense. New technologies threatened Blockbusters entire business model of renting a physical product for three days with late fees after that (which is where they made most of their money). Broadband internet enabled people to use Napster and the Pirate Bay to pirate movies for free. Netflix emerged as a market disruptor by creating a platform to remove late fees through mailing DVDs. Blockbuster did nothing – blinded by their business model, they could not see past their physical stores and late fees.

Netflix now streams direct to mobile devices eliminating the gap between content and consumer.

Meanwhile, Netflix became an adaptive company with a mission to deliver movies to people’s homes. They experimented with online delivery, another groundbreaking idea based on learning from the market (broadband based downloads of movies off the internet) and creating (testing its ideas with real services) new offerings that would disrupt their own business model to make way for a new one.

Netflix quickly saw from the market response they were a streaming company more than anything. They doubled down based on this learning, buying Starz entertainment to get new titles to stream. Movie recommendations became a key advantage for Netflix, learning from Amazon and other digital content providers. Even their biggest misstep, splitting the mail-in DVD business off into Qwikster was reversed based on their ability to listen to the market. They also listened to consumers when they eliminated, then re-instated user profiles on their streaming site. They are now creating original content using star power like David Fincher and Kevin Spacey. As a result, Netflix is one of the most successful of internet IPOs to date. Netflix is by no means safe in this fast paced market but if it continues to create and learn and adapt, it will continue to evolve with the market – and dominate.

A Gap pop-up shop helps to test ideas in-market.

There are many tools at the company’s disposal to help them create and learn. From rapid prototyping to pop-up piloting to using Google Adwords for feedback on value propositions creative companies are building a new toolbox with which to design quicker and better with confidence (I’ll share and explore these tools in another post).  These tools also let companies know when they have made a mistake and course-correct.

Is massive, disruptive change an advantage to your business?

Creating and Learning as a way of making decisions and adapting to the marketplace enables companies to always be in a “Blue Ocean” of new opportunities as the market shifts. Like the mammals overtaking slow-to-change dinosaurs, smart companies will use Fast, Blind and Dense conditions as a competitive advantage to wipe out or leapfrog the competition.

The Wall Part 2

From “made you look” to “made you think” - using walls to spread ideas.

Walls are all around us; they house us, protect us, imprison us and connect us. Some walls are so important they became famous: The Berlin Wall, The Great Wall of China and most recently, Your Wall on Facebook. But all walls everywhere have one thing in common – they are used by people to share ideas.

Living in the dense and blind world of LA neighborhoods, colors and letters on walls broadcast the unwritten rules of the local gangs.

I grew up in Van Nuys, Los Angeles. During high school the walls in my neighborhood began to speak to me. Scribbled across them were large block letters that spelled BVN (Barrio Van Nuys) for the predominant Mexican gang in the neighborhood. But in the washes of the LA River stood glorious 40 foot long, full-color pieces that spelled the name of the artist. It wasn’t always just a turf thing. My friends then introduced me to the secret world of walls.

The wildstyle of Rime, part of the MSK crew based out of Los Angeles

I was an Indian math/science nerd so slipping out of the house to illegally spray-paint walls in the middle of the night was a strange hobby. But I loved it because it was a way for me to anonymously express myself to the world. In the morning, there it was – making people look. A week later if nobody tagged over you it was a sign of respect – the ultimate street status. I didn’t do it for long; I was nearly arrested and decided to stick to my books after that.

A piece I did in Santa Barbara when I was 19 years old congratulating my sister on getting into UC Berkeley. Told you I was a nerd.

Since those days in the late 80’s, piecing on walls has greatly evolved. Back then getting recognized was the goal and volume was key – the more places your name was up, the greater your notoriety. Nowadays Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, Banksy and others have become globally recognized brands by putting up iconic imagery designed to ask the question “What does this mean?” more than say “I was here”. True art creates a change in its viewers; to do that an artist needs people to see their work. The contemporary art gallery has become the 405 freeway overpass.

A Banksy modified billboard in Hollywood commenting on society’s obsession with image.

“The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker” - Obey the Giant website

Seventeen thousand years ago in Lascaux prehistoric humans drew pictures of animals on the walls of the caves in which they lived. One theory is that the drawings of mammoths and horses were used to communicate successful hunting strategies within the clans.

The earliest cave paintings in Lascaux, France where early humans used the walls around them to share ideas between clans.

In the middle ages, it was common for people to post notices on town and castle walls to spread gossip and warn travelers and locals alike. Martin Luther, wanting to expose the extravagances of the Pope, nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church for all to see, thus igniting the Catholic Reformation and changing history forever.

But today the walls in our lives have become harder to see; our walls are digital. They have moved on our phones and into our pockets and laptops.

Nowadays instead of spray-painting on a wall we post our thoughts on Twitter, Yelp, Foursquare and Facebook. We share our ideas, bits of our lives and prove we exist through the reactions of family, friends and strangers. This new wall has a popular name – Social Media.

We are surrounded by personal digital walls wherever we go.

Everyone that has something to say can now say it directly to you. It is creating information density that is confusing and desensitizing us. Although information can scale infinitely, human attention cannot. This insight is driving a new breed of businesses.

Big Data is a promising field that uses advanced algorithms to search huge amounts of data to find patterns that people cannot. It promises the ability to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. The front-runner in this field is Palantir, a company that creates software that is used by the CIA to predict terrorist events using data sets as diverse as plane tickets and weather.

Information density is also creating a new economy based on curation, and it is quickly become the darling of Silicon Valley. Individuals like Maria Popova of Brainpickings and Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing scour the web and post what they find interesting to massive followings. People on Twitter become mini-curators that craft a news feed that they hope will gain a following. Platforms like Pinterest and others are attracting tremendous valuations because they enable me to find the needle that I didn’t know I wanted. Even Apple curates its own App Store.

Having good taste (or most importantly - a Point-of-View) in our blind and dense world is the new search engine. You just need a wall to write it on.

Pera, Turkey Shanghai, China - Advertisements Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey Lubljanja, Slovenia Kusadasi, Turkey Budapest, Hungary

The Wall Part 1

Here are a few pictures of small pieces of graffiti I have taken on my recent travels around Eastern Europe and Turkey.

There was no real pattern to the graffiti I saw except for its ubiquity. It seems that people everywhere have the same need to write something or leave a piece of themselves on a wall. It’s amazing how people around the world use the walls around them to express themselves, communicate with others and prove their existence.

What can we learn from the walls around us? From taggers to writers to artists like Banksy, how will the wall evolve as a medium of communication? How will the idea of a wall empower communication in a blind and dense world?

Closing the Facebook Value Gap

What is Facebook’s business worth? An interesting question brought into focus by the impending Facebook IPO and it’s surrounding media frenzy. A lot has already been written but I’ll add my thoughts before the opening bell.

A recent poll showed that the American public was nearly evenly divided over the 100 billion dollar valuation of Facebook. Which suggests it is fairly priced. Even experts seem to be split though most seem to be leaning towards overvalued. One way of looking at the valuation is through the lens of its users.

At a 100 billion dollar valuation, each Facebook profile is worth approx 110 dollars. Using the latest revenues of 3.7 Billion for “face value”, each profile was worth approx 4 dollars.

This 106 dollar “value gap” needs to shrink considerably or Facebook needs to convince Wall Street that it has a plan to shrink the gap - otherwise face a major selloff from a loss of confidence.

Facebook’s challenges lie not just in growing it’s user base but in increasing the value of that user base (without losing it, or spending much more to get it).

Interestingly, this is much the same challenge that the telecom companies have. Telecoms have an audience with high switching costs in a saturated market. They have become a “dumb pipe” of wireless information and are now struggling to become more than that even as next-gen companies are being built using those pipes.

Telecom’s big mistake in the early days of the battle for the mobile web was in constructing “walled-gardens” from which it directed users to buy stuff (remember the AT&T Store?). Of course this didn’t work because the telecoms could never provide the full variety of the web experience which is what users wanted and so people never used them. The telecoms also never thought to create a piece of hardware that could browse the web while mobile, or use the network they owned. They didn’t think it was their business. Apple eventually cracked that problem with the iPhone and promptly built the ultimate open-platform walled-garden of its own, the App Store, and dictated conditions that the industry now openly regrets.

Facebook’s biggest hurdle is the fact that it is effectively a walled garden on the web - what Facebook users do outside Facebook is largely unknown to people who advertise or build onto Facebook. Social Graph was an attempt at breaking this silo down but the social graph is opt-in by the user (you need to “like” an article on CNN for example) and therefore not very robust for deep data mining.

That leaves Facebook to live or die on its ability to turn itself into a platform so vast and deeply integrated in peoples’ lives that it effectively becomes the new web. The good news is the first step has been taken; most apps developed for the iPhone or Android already demand a Facebook sign-in to leverage the users’ existing social network. The biggest risk for Facebook is they stall out and become uncool - MySpace has shown us what that looks like already.

What’s cool about Facebook is not Facebook but that my friends are with me everywhere I go. As many have said, figuring out mobile is absolutely critical for Facebook - and players like Path have a head start. Facebook can’t buy all the Instagrams that crop up so they will have to own it eventually. Then there is the question of monetizing mobile in a way that doesn’t destroy what makes it cool.

It makes me wonder if Facebook is at the same crossroads as the telecoms - knowing what business they are really in will determine if you can avoid becoming the world’s next commodity. If Facebook can eventually own an end-to-end mobile experience that delivers truly “happy, unscripted moments” that are both social and commercial, Facebook’s valuation at 100 billion dollars may be very low.

There is far more at stake here than Facebook because as Facebook goes, so will the fortunes of all startups - the fortunes of web 2.0 really. The startup world of silicon valley, NYC, Shenzhen are highly inter-connected in unexpected ways. If Facebook ultimately disappoints, we will all look back and shake our heads at the famous line in the movie “the social network” - “you know what’s cool? A billion dollars”, and call it the great second bubble.This would be deeply unfortunate.

I’m really rooting for you Facebook.

Can Design Preserve Culture?

On the hunt for the perfect cup of Turkish coffee, I ended up at the 600 year old Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and stumbled upon an object that offered clues to creating culturally meaningful design.

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul

Wandering through a labyrinth of aisles, stalls and touting shopkeepers my wife and I found a small lane with several crowded Turkish coffee shops in a row. We found couple of seats no higher than my knees and sat down, wedging between a Turkish family and a carpet salesman. Quickly we ordered two Turkish coffees from the handsome (according to my wife handsomeness seems to run with Turkish men) shop owner. “Sweet?” he suggested.

Sitting down for a cup of coffee

While he was preparing the coffees we had a clear view of his actions. He began by placing two teaspoons of what seemed like coffee dust into a tapering, cylindrical copper container with a long handle coming from two-thirds the way up its side. I later learned this is called a cezve (pronounced Jez-veh). He then placed two small espresso-cup full of water into the copper vessel and placed it over the burner of a small stove. He kept the cezve low on the flame until it began to boil when he deftly lifted it, allowing the frothing tarry foam to recede. He repeated this once more and poured the thick black coffee into two espresso sized cups set into a tiny metal cage. When he placed these cups before us he also gave us tiny glasses of water as well. “It prepares you for the coffee” he said.

The foam that defines great Turkish coffee

The cup was perfect. At the bottom was a deep sandbar of coffee dust that left a thin coating in my mouth. The last of the water washed it down.

So began our next hunt – I wanted to buy a cezve so I could learn to make Turkish coffee at home.

The first cezve I found was also copper and beaten on its side with hundreds of dimples around it with a shorter handle that had a knot of metal coming together. It was a ubiquitous model found throughout the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul and the tourist shops all over the world. It was cheap and looked it. I moved on. The next cezve was similarly decorated. And the next. And the next.

This is the most popular cezve design I found

I found decorated cezves everywhere I went. I was looking for something more modern, without decoration. From Kappadokya to Pamakkule to Ephesus I looked in vain for an undecorated cezve.

I finally gave up at the international airport in Turkey. As we departed for Slovenia I had crazy ideas for designing my own cezve, one finally free of decoration.

Slovenia is a world apart from Turkey. It is like landing in the forest of Hansel and Gretel, whom you half expect to greet you in customs. As we toured through the museum of Slovenian history I was surprised by the spare and simple design aesthetic that the Soviet Union had shaped from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman culture.

Slovenian design is striking and modern, influenced by the austerity of communist USSR

While exploring the capital of Lubljanja, we stopped for a coffee near the main square. To our surprise they had Turkish coffee. Wanting a fix, I ordered one. Seconds later my eyes bulged with shock.

The barrista pulled out a beautiful spun copper cezve that was completely devoid of decoration. The spout was even visibly formed by bending from its original cylinder. Would they sell me the cezve? And come to think of it, why is there Turkish coffee so far from Turkey? Most importantly, where did they get it? Yes, they could sell me one she said and they are designed and made locally in Slovenia.

The Slovenian designed cezve

It turns out Turkish coffee is quite popular all over Eastern Europe from the influence of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Over the 600 years of the Ottoman Empire, the cezves and coffee customs slowly localized. At its breakup in 1929, the Ottoman Empire left behind a deep and rich culture firmly embedded into the lives and objects of people all over Europe and Asia.

The cezves of the Ottoman Empire share a basic form in common – a wide, heavy base tapering to a narrower top with a long handle to hold the cezve over the flame. All of these features have a function. The heavy base distributes heat evenly, the copper material efficiently transmits it. The narrow top traps the coffee grounds and the spout lets as little grounds out as possible. The handle is long to dissipate the heat generated by the conductive copper as it’s held over the flame. Its form evolved to perfection over hundreds of years.  But that’s where the similarities end. The Turkish ones tend to have hammered marks and decorated handles using the motifs found in their architecture.  The further north you go the less decorated they become, until the Slovenian models have the austerity of the Bauhaus and machine efficiency of modernism.

Black enamel cezve

Brass cezve with motif

Enamel cezve from Czech

Recent cezve design with sticks for handles representing today’s values of environmentalism and nature

The globalization of the cezve designs through time and distance leads to an interesting hypothesis:

If form preserves function, decoration preserves culture.

Form is born from what the design must do – it is the (obvious) result of the interaction between people and problem to solve. Decoration (or lack thereof) is added to a design to make it something people love and relate to. It humanizes the design. If we examine design through history, the first art could be found in the decoration of the human body and soon after, in the decoration of pottery, bowls and tools. Archaeologists found decoration to be so tied to the cultures that produced them they use it to identify the origin of ancient objects. During the industrial revolution in 1919, the Bauhaus designers began a rebellion against decoration, with Adolph Loos going so far to call it a “crime”. But this is really just the latest in the fashion of decoration made global by the mass production of the industrial age. It certainly will not be the last trend. But it brings up an interesting problem unique to the globalized present.

Pottery sherds grouped according to motif and cultural origin

In the age of a global market, what culture do we design for? Will we end up with an averaged global culture that continues exporting Western culture remixed with local tastes? Will we be able to use decoration to package culture and experience it through design?

A quick examination of websites may provide a clue. If we look at shopping websites throughout the world we begin to see formal similarities and massive decorative (stylistic) differences.


China -

Russia -

India –

Although the overall layout of these pages are largely the same, preserving the function of navigating online shopping, we can see culture being preserved in the style of the pages around the world. Dangdang has popups, flashing lights, and an endless scroll page meant to impress with quantity and the boldness of modern China. Ozon has a central blonde cowgirl in ripped jeans, almost comically Russian. Amazon focuses on economy and whitespace effusing American modernism. Flipkart resembles Amazon the most, reflecting the broad English literacy and westernization of India but with less skin.

These qualities were designed into the sites unconsciously by their designers. We are products of our culture; designers create the beauty that they know.

Hopefully, by understanding the relationship between form, function, decoration and culture, our future global designers will be able to create designs that are locally meaningful while remaining globally relevant.

Finding Purpose and Creativity on the New Silk Road

18 min

This is my recent TEDx talk about finding purpose and creativity, and using it to create a sustainable future. I hope you like it.

Life in Shanghai through a Holga lens

These pictures were taken from February through March 2012 and captures random snapshots of daily life. The lens was attached to a Samsung NX100 camera (which was designed in part by us at IDEO!)

Fast, Blind and Dense in Universe 25

“It’s a city built of pieces of cities. A corner from one place, another from some place else. So, you don’t really know where you are…its like every time you travel, you’ll be lost”

          - Patrick Tatopoulus, Dark City

In the movie Dark City, aliens rebuild the city in which the residents live every night. Every morning the residents awake to a new city, vaguely confused and beginning their days trying to keep up, as if they need to catch up to something but not sure what it is. This could very well describe life in Shanghai, Shenzhen or any one of China’s surging mega-tropolises. If you live in one of these frontier cities you will agree that seemingly overnight entire neighborhoods are built, reshaped or torn down.

For better or worse, we are now in a society where the rate of change is outpacing our ability to learn (fast), domestic and global markets are complex - interdependent in hidden and surprising ways (blind), and the competition for diminishing human and natural resources is intense (dense).

The sheer scale and speed of this reshaping of the emerging economies is warping the rules for business and society in unexpected ways. The tidal shift in global redistribution of wealth from West to East has created new market conditions that move so quickly that businesses and consumers are now spending more time catching up than thoughtfully moving ahead.

The crazy part is that it’s going to get even faster, blinder and denser.

The development of fast, blind and dense markets is the latest ripple extending out from the industrial revolution and extended by the internet revolution and was brought on principally by an increasing population in resource scarce regions. Couple these regions with new wealth from commodities and you have a new wild west shaping the consumers and cultures of the future.

Paying to compete for attention.

The consumers of tomorrow will look fundamentally different than those of today. They will be demanding products and services that are globally relevant, yet locally meaningful. They will have far more choice than their parents did - from what they consume to what they do for a living to how they express themselves.

If we continue on our current path of abundance, how will our societies grow in the super-prosperous conditions brought on by the emerging economies?

Universe 25. From Animal Populations: Nature’s Checks and Balances, 1983

One answer may be provided by Universe 25, a city of mice built by John B. Calhoun, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland. Universe 25 was designed to be a Utopia - unlimited food and water in a 10 by 14 foot enclosure. He placed 15 mice into this city and within a year and a half there were over 2000 mice all competing not for the plentiful air, water and food but for space, attention and affection.

In short, this Utopian paradise turned into mice hell. When the mouse population outstripped the available space, the mice fell into what Calhoun called the “behavioral sink” where "explosive violence, hypersexual activity followed by asexuality, and self-destruction" became the inevitable outcome.

Mouse utopia/dystopia, as designed by John B. Calhoun. From Animal Populations: Nature’s Checks and Balances, 1983.

For a full account of Calhoun’s work read the excellent article in Cabinet by Will Wiles here:

There is a silver lining though, if you could call it that. Maybe more of a glimmer of hope. Calhoun found that creativity and social connectedness emerged spontaneously in the mice and they were able to stave off the collapse of their mouse society. He came to believe that creativity and design can solve our future problems.

The creativity needed in this future doesn’t look like what you think. It isn’t rainbows of genius shooting forth from the pens of scholars in ivory towers. The New creativity is dirty, messy and scrappy trial and error that is crowdsourced and networked across society - enabling collaboration and openness. Leadership will become a recognized skill necessary to rally the creative potential of society and focus it on a purpose (people like Oppenheimer and JFK come to mind). Continual evolution of ideas rather than incubated perfection is the norm in Fast, Blind and Dense markets.

The never-ending cranes of Asia.

Asia contains the fastest, blindest and densest markets in the world. As competitive pressures increase it is up to us to become more creative and trusting to literally keep our sanity in this new world. And in Asia we will be able to experience the future first, and also solve its problems first. I believe we are more than capable of avoiding the fate of Universe 25 and Dark City by using our collective imagination and optimism; and in doing so, attain a new global prosperity.

Mong Kok, Hong Kong AKA Blade Runner
The home for fake or cheap consumer electronics, Mong Kok is on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong where most of the locals live and shop. It’s an amazing place with tons of energy, a real contrast to the more upscale Hong Kong. High-res

Mong Kok, Hong Kong AKA Blade Runner

The home for fake or cheap consumer electronics, Mong Kok is on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong where most of the locals live and shop. It’s an amazing place with tons of energy, a real contrast to the more upscale Hong Kong.

山寨创新 Shanzhai-Innovation

A few weeks after I arrived in Shanghai I was given the opportunity to speak at a TEDx Salon event about technology and society where I met David Li, founder of the Shanghai Hackerspace and dedicated to increasing indigenous innovation. So I listened closely when he spoke to me about a concept he called “Shanzhai-Innovation” which turned the ugly idea of copying on its head to empower a new breed of Chinese innovators.

TEDx Salon held in September 2011, Shanghai

Shanzhai (roughly pronounced Shawn-jai) is a controversial term referring to “fakes, or copies” of a well-known branded product. From products like sunglasses to consumer electronics to IKEA to entire Apple stores, it seems nothing is out of reach for Shanzhai these days.

Over lunch, David introduced me to the concept of Shanzhai-Innovation. At its core, Shanzhai-innovation is the copying of a core technology like cell telephony and rapidly iterating it to suit local needs. As David and I spoke, the tremendous power I found in this approach was not the act of copying, for which the Chinese are much maligned, but in the iteration of the technology to meet local needs. When this iteration is coupled with a blistering fast-paced market like China, radical innovation emerges through evolution - innovation that can outstrip the imitated. 

Origins of Shanzhai

A painting depicting the smuggling of goods

Shanzhai (山寨) is a word in Mandarin literally meaning “camp on a mountain” and is loosely rooted in the outlaw’s camp that smuggles or makes fake goods. The closest English translation of Shanzhai today might be the word “tinker”.

G’Five in India

Lately these copies are no longer just cheap knockoffs but are becoming a credible alternative to the original. Over lunch, David Li related to me the remarkable story of G’Five, a Shanzhai phone manufacturer learning to innovate almost by accident - and becoming a global force because of it.

A Chinese G’Five Tablet for India

G’Five is a mobile phone manufacturer that quickly evolves its products for the Indian market (as short as 45 days from idea to launch), producing small runs of phones that contain a new feature in addition to a regular run. By measuring the sales velocity of the experimental run relative to the regular run, G’Five is able to determine which mixture of price and features will work best at that moment. Iterating like this has helped G’Five go from market entry with no marketing or presence into the 2nd largest phone provider in India, gaining market share in the country at a much faster rate than mature brands like Nokia and Sony Ericsson. An interesting interview with their India MD here.

Copying Runs Deep through History

Through copying, cultures are able to transmit knowledge and technical know-how. Of course, without the West copying the East, paper nor gunpowder would have never left China in the 13th century.

Shanzhai IKEA store in Kunming, China

China is not the first country accused of stealing technology and copying its way to success with cheap knockoffs. Japan’s now famed industry quality was considered cheap imitations of the goods made in the USA for years and then held in suspicion for corporate espionage. “Made in Korea” meant junk when I was a kid, but now Samsung leads the world in core technologies like DRAM and LCD panel development, supplying the likes of Apple with their components.

If we look outside technology to the arts we see an even deeper history of copying, or plagiarism. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”, as Picasso or TS Eliot may have said.

Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985 by Jeff Koons

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 by Damien Hirst. Inspired by Koons?

The music industry has recently seen an explosion of the remix genre from sampling sound bites to entire mixtapes. When sampling first became popular with Hip-Hop in the 70’s and 80’s, there was a public outcry over the “plagiarism” of music. Over time sampling has become an inspirational part of world culture giving birth to entirely new branches of music. DJ Danger Mouse launched to international fame with his Grey Album, an unauthorized remix of the Beatles’ White album and Jay-Z’s Black album. In the art world, Damien Hirst borrowed from Jeff Koons’ Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank for his own formaldehyde series. Andy Warhol re-contextualized Campbell’s products to make a new statement. It makes me wonder, can Shanzhai products be seen as re-contextualized products for a new consumer? If products become remixable, what will be their value?

SinaWeibo - The Once and Future Twitter?

To really get a feel for the power of fast markets and rapid evolution of businesses we turn to the phenomenal growth of Sina Weibo. Launched in 2009 as a “copy-cat” of Twitter, the team at Sina Weibo didn’t stop there – they pushed the pace of iterating the design of the site based on Chinese user feedback and learnings in the competitive market.

Sina Weibo’s website evolved into a blend of Facebook and Twitter

140 characters in Chinese is more like 140 words - a richer type of message was being delivered. As a result, Chinese used Sina Weibo more like a place of self-expression than broadcasting very short messages. In response, Sina Weibo quickly added features like rich multimedia posts and the ability to verify your identity with V+. The result is an SNS that combines Facebook behaviors such as games, likes, and apps with a Twitter-type following system. Sina Weibo is no longer copying Twitter but leading by leveraging the unique forces of the Chinese market. Just three years after it was founded, Sina Weibo has 300 million users sending an average 86 million messages a day. As Twitter evolves its service, it is ironically now looking to Weibo for inspiration - it was just announced Twitter has acquired Posterous, a USA based blogging platform with tight iOS integration.

From Breakthrough-Innovation to Evolutionary-Innovation

By thinking about innovation as the rapid evolution of an idea we can free ourselves from having to start over every time. Starting with what already exists and evolving it in the “wild”, we can leverage rapid prototyping and market forces to create human-centered, market-proven innovation. Life itself has evolved by (imperfectly) copying itself over and over in different environments leading to innovations that succeed in new conditions.

An early evolutionary tree of life showing the relationship between life forms

Shanzhai- Innovation can be viewed as a form of this copy/paste/evolve mechanism leading to inspiring new goods and services for the rest of the world.

An evolutionary tree of video game controllers (Via Pop Chart Lab)

We may end up in a co-created world where we literally become part of the products and services we use, with these “service-objects” (to borrow a phrase coined by my colleague Robert Suarez) adapting to our specific needs at any moment. Web and app developers have already embraced an evolutionary approach to innovation. Zynga and other game developers now build their games using live A/B testing as a way of forcing “survival of the fittest” features.

Charles Darwin. Amazing Beard.

The physical world is not far behind the virtual. And when it does catch up, smart designers and organizations will see fast, blind and dense market forces as just another designer on their team. Darwin will be proud.

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The New Silk Road

Arriving in Kolkata, the former jewel in the crown of the British Empire and now brimming with 14 million people, I again found myself surrounded by the Great Mall of Small Commodities.


One of millions of Indian merchants selling goods from Yiwu through local “Tippers”.

Needing some sandals because it was hot and sticky, my cousin took me to the mall. I was taken aback by an unexpectedly familiar sight. Everywhere I looked were the exact goods I had seen in Yiwu, now imported by Indian “Tippers” that buy container-loads from China and resell them across India. I was amazed to see the exact same goods from Yiwu for sale throughout this mall, except now I could buy one pair of sandals for 1 USD instead of 10,000 pairs for 5,000 USD. These Tippers were building an economic bridge with China enabling cheap goods to enhance daily life for India’s citizens. My relatives told me everything plastic was made in China. They said “China is the Hare and we are the Tortoise. They are way ahead but one day we will win”. Most importantly, “They have shown us we can progress, India’s massive population can move”. China had inspired the people of India into action.

While many of the goods from Yiwu are ultimately disposable and transient in their owner’s lives, I have seen a growing desire for choice beyond color of plastic. My cousin told me how she can feel the difference between a luxury watch like a Rolex and a knockoff even if you can’t see it. And how others can too - if you are caught wearing a knockoff you are ostracized.

What will ultimately activate what could be the biggest engine of growth the world has ever seen is communication between these demographic giants. As in the Silk Road of antiquity, what begins as economic trade invariably ends in the more important trade of ideas. Ideas like gunpowder, paper, the compass and Buddhism.


Sandals for sale in Kolkata, imported from Yiwu on the New Silk Road

Having chai and chatting with my family later that evening, it snapped together. There is a New Silk Road re-connecting and re-shaping our world, and I was standing on it.

The New Silk Road doesn’t look anything like the old Silk Road. Fiber-optic cables, satellites, railways, oil pipelines, and ships the size of small cities criss-cross the globe at breathtaking speed. The Silk Road of old has become a new idea binding the future of our world to the emerging economies, and it is happening fast. The speed of this new silk road is one of its outstanding characteristics, and one of its greatest dangers.

This New Silk Road, ever expanding, is connecting China, India, the states of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and finally the West in an impenetrable web of trade driven by the desire of its people to have a better life. This manifests in entrepreneurial spirit that isn’t about making a billion dollars but making their family and country proud. It manifests in factory workers that threaten mass suicide at Foxconn supplying iPhones to the world. It shows up in Angola as freeways, hospitals, and schools built by Chinese in exchange for oil and it surrounds us as the failure of banks in the US cascade to Europe and finally to Asia.

You and I are connected on the New Silk Road, whether we like it or not. The road is fast, blind, dense and is yet to be finished. Smart companies and governments will alter its course, like a dammed river, to point the New Silk Road wherever they want it to go. We could end up in a future where China and India dominate growth, innovation and outsource its jobs to the West. Or it could enable a new global prosperity where all countries benefit from each others resources through frictionless trade.

I invite you to join me in traveling this road to discover the new world order and discover the forces at play in shaping it. It won’t be straightforward, it won’t be obvious but it will certainly be exciting.

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Yiwu, The Great Mall of Small Commodities


Inside Yiwu’s Great Mall of Small Commodities. Note the vanishing point!

Yiwu’s Great Mall of Small Commodities is open 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Located in a dusty outpost of China, every store in the great mall is a storefront for a particular Chinese factory and traders outside the West know it as a central hub of the global economy. To see Yiwu with my own eyes, I left the neon skyscrapers of Shanghai and set off on a 2 and 1/2 hour bullet train ride to the countryside with my wife and a local engineer named Ayantou.

We arrived at night to the smell of small fires burning throughout Yiwu, presumably as part of garbage disposal. Near our hotel, which catered to Muslim clientele, the Great Mall loomed as five giant grey buildings. Story-high red lettering on building exteriors indicated the zones and goods therein. Since each zone is a city block in size, most shoppers take taxis between zones, or stop for foot massages in chairs set up by aspiring entrepeneurs along the way.

The next morning, the three of us took a deep breath of dusty, polluted air and walked across the street and into the great mall. Some quick stats to help get you prepared for what we saw in the mall: A total of 58,000 Chinese Suppliers, 410,000 Kinds Of Consumer Goods, , 4 districts with 19 main markets in order of volume - 1) Yiwu Jewelry Market, 2) Yiwu Artificial Flowers Market, 3) Yiwu Toys Market, 4) Yiwu Arts & Crafts Market, 5) Yiwu Suitcases & Bags Market, 6) Yiwu Clocks & Watches Market, 7) Yiwu Rainwear & Umbrellas Market, 8)Yiwu Office & School Supplies Market, 9) Yiwu Sports & Outdoor Market, 10) Yiwu Cosmetics Market, 11) Yiwu Socks Market, 12) Yiwu Belts Market, 13) Yiwu Towels Market, 14) Yiwu Shoes Market, 15) Yiwu Daily Use Products Market, 16) Yiwu Gloves & Mittens Market, 17) Yiwu Hats & Caps Market, 18) Yiwu Scarves & Shawls Market.

It is hard to understand the breadth and scale of Yiwu until you plumb its depths where we found among others, lenticular posters which changed from Jesus to a scantily clad woman as you walked by, every fake consumer electronic you could want, every manner of  fitness products which you could custom emblazon at no extra cost, radio control helicopters, mousepads with female breasts in which to rest your wrist , every imaginable lock and key, Spongebob embroidered socks, and every sort of strange “as seen on TV” type of product.  We walked for 1 and a half hours in a straight line and went from district 1 to 3 without ever leaving the mall, changing aisles or changing floors. There are 5 floors, 4 districts and you could easily fit 10 Mall of the Americas in there.

As we continued deeper into the bowels of the Great Mall it was remarkably quiet. Traders and manufacturers did their business in hushed tones and if I got closer they would stop talking.Then I got to the Window to Africa. There were rows and rows of stores dealing in goods from the Middle East and Africa, from tribal pots and woven wicker baskets to Islamic goods including the Quran and other religious items. How is it possible that African goods are being made in China for Africa? Where were the Americans that supposedly do so much business with China?


Muslims trading in the Great Mall.

Asking Ayantou, he told me there is a huge amount of trade between China, Africa and the Middle East. African, Indian and Middle Eastern traders are able to buy containers of goods at dirt cheap prices and ship them to their countries where they are distributed across the continent. These traders can make a killing - until the hazards of bribes, international piracy and changing tariff policies cause epic blowouts.

Riding the train home at 250 km/hr I realized we had glimpsed something special, a frontier town that is a major player inside a new global economy - and I had never heard of it before.

There was definitely something much larger was going on in Yiwu. I just wasn’t sure what it was.

Next week: Stumbling onto the New Silk Road

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