Fast, Blind and Dense

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Exploring the art of innovation in emerging markets.

Design as a Philosophy of Action

“Practicing is greater than knowing”.

-Xun Zi 300 BC

I was raised to believe that knowledge is power. Then I moved to China and found that wasn’t always true.

In the West, markets are stable and known. There has become a set way of doing things, “the _____ way”. But China moves too quickly for that. There hasn’t been time for any particular way to become standard. In China, your knowledge can become your limitation, especially when change outpaces your ability to learn.

Xun Zi’s great insight was in articulating that when we ‘know’ something, there is nothing more to be learned; the subject matter is closed. But the essence of design is that there is always more to be learned. If there is a truth in design, it is as mercurial as human desire.

It goes without saying that we live in a time where uncertainty and change are growing at an exponential rate, fueled by the accelerant of technology and globalization. Any process or dogma that is rigidly based on what is true now could become extinct in short order; to survive we must adapt, and to adapt we need flexibility.

To practice design, rather than to know design, is the challenge—in China and in every emerging frontier.

Meanwhile, our current global culture still places knowledge on the highest pedestal; our schools still elevate rote memorization. Do schools kill creativity? And are we preparing a generation of kids to just follow instructions (however misguided)? Sir Ken Robinson’s highly regarded TED talk on this very topic is well worth the 18 minutes:

"kids will take a chance…if they don’t know, they’ll have a go."

One of my favorite lines in Robinson’s TED talk is, “kids will take a chance…if they don’t know, they’ll have a go.” Our future belongs to those with the courage to “have a go” at solving whatever problems they face—in China, and beyond.

By prototyping and practicing, we evolve our assumptions. By taking nothing for granted, we learn experientially and create work that can verify or refute our instincts. By rapidly and continuously building within the marketplace, a philosophy of action leads to products and services that are sincerely and beautifully designed for those they are meant to serve.

Learn. Create. (Do not rinse) and Repeat. Design as a philosophy of action emphasizes empirical experience translated directly into a physical hypothesis. Once an idea or hypothesis is made physical, it takes on a life of its own and can evolve toward a naturally ideal solution.

One of the hackerspaces around the world where people are encouraged to quickly build their ideas in a collaborative environment.

A philosophy of action gives us a way of approaching problems as flexible as the problems themselves. This flexibility is the killer app for thriving in our highly uncertain future. Without action, the designers, corporations, and governments of today will not be able to keep up in our fast paced and increasingly uncertain times.

We have to keep moving and keep flowing to keep up. And as Bruce Lee put it 2300 years after Xun Zi, there’s only one way to start: “Be like water my friend”.

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