Life In Beta--How Design thinking Can Help Us Navigate Through This Time of Cascading Change

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on November 19, 2009

This is the talk that I gave at the Singapore Design Thinking Symposium on Tuesday. It was a terrific gathering of designers, public servants from the education, defense, health and other Singapore government ministeries. Pee Suat Hoon, the director of Singapore Polytechnic was there. The National Library Board sponsored the event.

Here’s the talk:


Life in Beta: How Design Thinking Can Help Us Navigate Through This Time of Continuous, Cascading Change.


“Thank you. President Obama was just in Asia, announcing that he is the first Pacific US President, having been raised in Hawaii. I think a more historically significant “first” is the fact that for the first time in modern history, Asia is leading the global economy out of recession, indeed the worst recession since the Great Depression. Asia—I should say Continental Asia — is growing faster, producing more millionaires per year, and amassing the biggest hoard of US dollars, than North America, Europe, Latin America and even the Middle East.
Totally impressive. And, I would like to argue here today, totally problematic. The past and even the present are not good predictors of the future. Reliably repeating past success ever more efficiently is a poor predictor of a new, valid future. And we are entering a new future, a very different future, where the low-cost, efficient production of things and services for export to a single subset of overseas consumers—American consumers— may not generate the same kind of economic value and prosperity as it has in the past. This may be especially true for high-income societies such as Singapore, Korea and coastal China.

I would like to provoke you today by arguing that the engineering/efficiency/reliability model of past Singaporean success needs to be augmented with a new model based on culture/generation and validity.
So allow me to sketch out a narrative that may challenge some of Singapore’s and Asia’s assumptions about it’s future. Let’s talk about Designomics, a term I first heard about out of Korea just a month ago. I like it because both parts of the word—design and economics—are undergoing vast changes. The global economy is emerging from the Great Recession, with a very different shape, a very different trajectory and a very different set of growth engines. Design is also emerging from the recent crisis, with a different form, function and name—Design Thinking. A design-based business model and a design-based economy may well provide the best new opportunities for creating value, growth, revenues, profits, jobs and wealth for the decades ahead.
Why do I say this? Because we now live in a world of constant, cascading change, which is eroding our business and social institutions, reshaping our careers and remaking our lives. Powerful geopolitical, demographic, technological, and economic forces are disrupting life as we know it. Old behaviors and methods of generating growth no longer work as well as they once did. Traditional business and economic models based on making efficient choices among existing options within stable business and economic systems are starting to lose their value for many companies and countries.
Increasingly, people are turning to Design Thinking as a new paradigm to understand the needs and desires of changing cultures and create new options that never existed before. It is the ability to generate new concepts that lead to new products, services and even social systems of great value. In a life always in beta that doesn’t pause or end, Design Thinking is providing a pathway to the future.
This speech, Life in Beta, will examine the major forces changing our lives today and show how Design Thinking provides a package of tools, methodologies and perspectives that has relevance to all our social systems—business, health, education, entertainment.

First, I will discuss three of the five most powerful global forces at work transforming our lives—geopolitics (the rise of Asia and fall of the West); demographics (the rise of the Gen Y generation (which is the demographic group between 16 and 27 years old) and the decline of the Baby Boomers); and innovation (the rise of social media and the spread of new digital cultures). The other two global forces at work are mega-cities and global warming.

Secondly, I will examine the rise of Design Thinking and explain how it is the most appropriate means of generating economic growth today. I will explain how the tools and methodologies have evolved so that Design has moved from creating artifacts to shaping human interactions; from focusing on materiality to engaging social systems. I will end the talk with a suggestion that the organic, generative, culture-based model of Design Thinking may be an appropriate model for Singapore in addition to the mechanical, efficiency-based engineering model.

Let’s begin with the forces sweeping through global society. First, the rise and fall of nations and what it means for culture and commerce. Last month, the internet regulator, ICANN, announced that it would allow web addresses to be written in non-Latin languages. In effect, it reflects the end of English dominance of the web. Chinese, Korean, Hindi and Arabic speakers will be able to address their email in their own language. I predict this move will go down in history as being as important as the dollar going off the gold standard in 1973. In fact, they are two data points on an historic arc representing a trend—the economic rise of Asia vis a vis the West.

So what does this mean for the future? When one nation has the economic, technological and political power to lead world society, it’s tends to dominate much of world culture. Music, education, economic models, art, political systems. We know this. What we sometimes forget is that the homogeneity of world culture also makes it easier for world commerce. You only have to worry about a handful of cultures that you do business in—the dominant one, and the others that copy the dominant one.
Here is the talk that I delivered at the Singapore Design Thinking Symposium: Life in Beta—How Design Thinking Can Help Us Navigate Through This Time of Continuous, Cascading Change.


Today, the dominant global culture, the US, and specifically, the dominant consuming culture, the American consumer, are in retreat. American consumers have woken up to find that they’ve lost a decade—maybe two— of prosperity and that debt and speculation allowed them to live far beyond their means. For tens of millions of Americans, globalization has meant immiseration. Blue collar, white collar, knowledge workers—all have lost. The S&P 500, even after recovering dramatically, is no higher than it was in 1999. A lost decade.

So the main driver of Asian growth for the past 3 decades, the homogeneous culture of the American consumer, is fading as a force. At the same time, we see rising prosperity around the world. We are moving from global cultural homogeneity to diversity as we move from geo-economic hegemony to multiplicity and multi-polarity. To do business now means understanding many cultures. This means that employing standard business practices ever more efficiently may well generate less and less value.

Let’s now talk about the second big trend, demographics. The rise of the Gen Y or Millenial generation and fall of the Baby Boomer demographic is perhaps even more important than the rise and fall of nations. Each Millenial generation in each country varies of course, but most share a distinctive culture that is very different from older generations. In the US, Gen Y has a unique and powerful culture—urban, collaborative, participatory, green, generative—it likes to use tools and make things. It is also pan-ethnic, trans-gender and trans-national. Millenials in China share many of these traits—but they are very nationalistic and are pro-ethnic. I don’t know what are the cultural characteristics of the Gen Y generation in Singapore, except that the gap between them and their parents is probably much wider than the gap between their parents and their grandparents.

Millenials in the US tend to live in a culture of free information that is instantly available, with constant communication with friends that is global in scope. They live on social media digital platforms that are ever changing. They inhabit a participatory media that gives them the tools to create, share and reappropriate content, including their own fluid identities. I call Millenial culture a Learn-Share-Make culture.

In the US, the Gen Y generation is already changing how society shops, brands, communicates, educates, delivers health care, transports itself and even raises families. The biggest changes appear to be coming in service delivery—of health and education in particular. This Learn-Make-Share generation is already causing a de-massing and disaggregating of all kinds of service delivery in the US. Millenials live in social media and would just as soon have their classes and their medical care delivered through iPhone applications than go to big building and listen to sages on stages.
The third transforming force in our lives is digital social media. For the first time in history, it is now easy and inexpensive to create our own communities, our own cultures, anywhere, anytime. We can belong to hundreds of cultures of our choosing, not just the one of our birth. Social media is creating tens of thousands of digital cultures every year—and they are cultures you need to understand and engage if you want to sell them products or services. We all know there are 40,000 villages in, but 40,000 digital villages are created every week on the web. I’ve heard there is one for Mommies with twins in Brooklyn. Do you know their culture?

These three global forces—the rise and fall of nations, the rise and fall of generations and the spread of digital social media—are combining to transform our world and especially our global economy. We are on the cusp of a New Normal. This New Normal situation in the world will need a new paradigm and fresh tools and methods to generate economic growth and prosperity.

Which brings me to Design. During the time that big political, demographic and technological forces of change have been reshaping the global economy, the field of Design has been evolving into a serious discipline that can help us navigate today’s economic uncertainties and generate value for tomorrow’s products and services.

Design has made a revolutionary journey in the past decade from a narrow field able to focus on the making of stuff to the design of social systems and the transformation of healthcare, transportation, supply-chain, education, not to mention shopping. Today, corporations are asking designers to design brand strategies as well as the products and services composing the brands themselves. And not just companies. The Mayo Clinic and the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer hospital are using Design to change the way doctors relate to patients while branding themselves nationally as elite medical service deliverers.

How so? Building on the user-centric roots of industrial design, Design has an ethnographic core that allows businessmen and others to connect with any and all cultures, real and digital, anywhere around the world. And Design’s ability to learn from these cultural connections and translate that data into new concepts for products and services gives it the power to generate revenue and profits in a global economic environment of deepening uncertainty. If Six Sigma and management thinking were our guides to efficient choice-making and profit maximization in yesterday’s era of global hegemony, stability and homogeneity, then in an era of global heterogeneity, instability and diversity, Design Thinking can be our guide to deep consumer understanding, visualization of possibilities, generative option-making and strategic brand finding.

So what does this mean for Singapore, especially as the world moves into economic recovery? Technology used to dominate innovation. Today, technology is everywhere and accessible to all. Design Thinking is far more important to innovation than technology. Finding relevance and meaning to people living in a multiplicity of real and digital cultures is the new key to success. There were many touch-screen cell phones available in the world when Apple came out with the iPhone. Motorola had a good one in China. But Apple designed the touch-screen platform to make it so easy to use and opened the platform to developers who created 100,000 applications for millions of consumers. Empathy. Connection. Engagement. Interaction. Options. That’s Design. In the US, the iPhone is the social media, digital platform of choice for Gen Yers. The entire economy is becoming “iPhonized, “ leading to what I call the “iPhonization of service.” Young people want service delivered over Facebook or iPhone or MySpace where they can instantly access it, share it, change it and use it. That means designing games, tax-advice, healthcare, movies and educational curricula so they can be delivered on a social media platform that is key to their individual culture. Knowing their culture, just like knowing the culture of a poor southern Indian farming village, is the key to understanding how to create the new and generate value.

Take the Kindle, the electronic book delivery device by Amazon. The Kindle is the first online technology platform embraced by the elderly in America. Why? It was designed to do just one thing very easily—it delivers and presents books cheaply and easily online in a way that people in their 60s and 70s can use. There’s no interaction, no color, no video. The Kindle provides print on an electronic page, exactly what the elderly, book-reading elderly demographic wants. Designing for specific demographics and their own cultures is crucial when generations are so far apart in their use of technologies.

The challenge ahead for Singapore is to add a new competency, a Design Thinking competency, to its excellent model of efficient engineering. The challenge is to
learn to understand cultures all over the real and digital world in order to deliver what people want, wherever they live, and on their platform of choice. This is where economic value is created today.
I would like to end on a philosophical note. One reason why people are turning to Design Thinking today is that it is essentially optimistic. Design has a future-facing perspective and a tool-using core competence. The whole purpose of Design is to make the new. We live a life of constant beta, a place of uncertainty and cascading change. In this new world, Design Thinking can be our navigator. We should embrace it.”

That’s it. What do you think?

Reader Comments

Chrhis Finlay

November 19, 2009 2:43 PM

Really like the characterization of the emerging culture of learn-make-share. It is fair to say that is an iterative cycle considering the nature of communication and openness that exists today rather than linear. Not sure its fair to say its just Millennials though. More like a movement. Perhaps the Maker movement (Re: Make Magazine). Also reminds me of the algorithm Neri Oxman described at BIF5; art > artifice > apparatus.

Perhaps the business issues we have most recently faced have helped solidify the term Design Thinking as the new term to represent the process of innovation. Not sure but I like your old statement, (not exact) "When people say innovation in this decade they really mean design." With this in mind I think often about how hard it can be to help people understand the evolution of design and design thinking because many of the words we use to describe it are the same ones we used to describe the "old" Design. The trick is giving them that experience of relevance. Once they feel the magic through project work or experiencing a product they relate to the process then they get hooked. Relevance is relative to the individual and businesses must understand that is not just a line in a list of user requirements but the requirement.

Daniel Christadoss

November 20, 2009 2:00 AM

Bruce, I loved what you said in your speech. Quoting you "organic, generative, culture-based model of Design Thinking may be an appropriate model for Singapore in addition to the mechanical, efficiency-based engineering model." I believe this is not only true for Singapore but is perfect for the horde of Six Sigmated companies which have achieved a level of operational efficiency and are now looking to go to the next level.

Michael Maxwell Santoro

November 20, 2009 2:07 AM

Thanks, you put into words a few concepts that I have been kicking around while trying to decide how to justify my path through college. I see the need for design thinking in every organization I come upon, everyone must adapt in order to reduce the complexity that comes with modern life. There's just too much going on for anyone to want to spend time with a poorly designed service.

Sharon VanderKaay

November 22, 2009 4:21 PM

Well said! First, I like your title which captures the norm of discovery in contrast to the quest for predictable paths. This is a vital message – to look beyond (actually, be very afraid of) refining a model of success that worked so well in the past to see a different yet rigorous way forward. Your observation that Design Thinking is essentially optimistic really struck me and I believe needs to highlighted more frequently when wading into this topic. The best designers have always seen more possibilities than typically meet the eye – which can translate to discovering new escape routes from economic fragility to sustainable prosperity.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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