MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Positive ideas for the world from Detroit – TEDxDetroit revisited briefly

In recent months, I've felt that one of the best things we could do as designers, architects, and consultants is to work with our clients in a mode of group therapy. I've had the feeling that each of us and our clients are in a continuing state of concern about the economy and what recovery means and, for each of us, a move forward feels still a bit lonely, even a bit daring, maybe even threatening. And certainly, focused on the continuing issues of survival, recovery, competition, changing value, shifting markets and many other dynamics, it appears that it's also been difficult for many to raise their heads out of the daily demand and become aware of and even engaged in the seeds of development germinating in other places.

The idea, then, of acting as an agent to get a group together to just see, hear and understand better the context that all are in had the optimistic sense that if we all act together we may be able to act sooner and more robustly.

TEDxDetroit was a good, and large, example of this and, judging from the spirit there and a sense of action in communications afterwords, it seems to have initiated some of the effect I would look for in this group idea. Modeled on the TED concept, but independently sponsored, TEDxDetroit offered a jam-packed day of presentations and entertainment illuminating a great portfolio of locally-developing companies, talent and innovations.

Others have commented on some of the more spirited pieces of the day – great and surprising personal stories, commitments and influences in the community, and otherwise hidden musical talent. I thought I might reflect a bit on some things that interested me from the domains of business that were presented there.

Richard Sheridan

I hadn't expected Sheridan's presentation, and appreciated the insights. His story was about user experience, more specifically user-centered design, and most relevantly the practice of observing and engaging the user of what will be proposed.

These practices and processes are still rare in architectural and workspace design where the nature of the selection process, the quality of the design brief, the client's management of process and the spareness of resources all usually mean a significant separation of designer from user. (Joe Duffy's frustration and resolution referenced in my earlier post is a good example of the implications of this process.)

User-centered practice seems to be a well-developed discipline in product and interface design, where there are many stories of great products, corporate growth and satisfied customers achievable only through processes informed by ethnographic disciplines.What benefits might be uncovered through wider use of these methods in the planning and design of facilities?

Fabienne Munch

Fabienne focused on the characteristics of corporate culture, with some interesting insights into the role of ambiguity and inconsistency in shaping cultures with high levels of innovation.

She spoke of the culture "genome" at Herman Miller as having consistently been one of design expressed generally in terms such as, "it's about what you make," "you decide what to make," and "design is at the core" of the business. Herman Miller's evolving culture allows the apparent inconsistencies of, "it's about how you make it," "the market decides what you make," and "business is an integral part of design."

I liked especially her simple formulation to guide decisions about organizational culture – "what or who would you take from here into the future?"

Dawn White

Dawn's was the first of a number of presentations during the day exhibiting a different kind of thinking about business, with social purpose solidly at the core of the plan.

Dawn White presented a simple business and product concept questioning the paradigm of generating power by things that go around. Rather than powered generators, or even windmills, her company has developed a technology that generates electricity by wind movement passing by tubes that are stationary, silent and modular.

As interesting as the technology concept was her manufacturing concept. Her technology generates 1 kilowatt of electricity over each 640 inches of tubing that cost about 1 cent per foot to fabricate on a machine generating 300 feet per minute of tubing. The arithmetic represents a significant potential capture of underutilized plant space in the Detroit region and a great base for employing the people here who know how to engineer and fabricate metal well.

Her story was a good example of transitional thinking for the area, considering talent more than labor, for example, and seeking ways to uncover and utilize capacity in new ways.


Paul Schutt

Paul's company is significantly changing the perception of the economy, innovation and development in Detroit (and other places) as well as offering a new model for media, in general.

Paul referenced the context of the Michigan Cool Cities initiative and its formulation of the TIDE model – that a balanced performance across talent, innovation, diversity and environment was essential to make the kind of high demand place that is attractive to people and generates growth because of that attractiveness.

Paul expressed his company's interest in people "who are more than one thing" – uncovering,  employing and writing about people who were achieving great things in their jobs, and also influential and engaged in other endeavors as well.

His media company is operating with the observation that frequently "narrative does not match the place." That is, that in cities like Detroit, there is more going on than is recognized and that the surprise generated by these stories is a generator of interest and economic growth.

He spoke of the role of data to shape their own perceptions and therefore their approach to stories about place. One example – 76% of households in Michigan are without children – helps overcome paradigms about the lifestyles that have traditionally shaped the design of cities and strategies for marketing, economic development and promotion.

So, group therapy, of sorts – an opportunity to hear about how others are moving forward with enthusiasm, creativity and energy, overcoming past perceptions and even current conditions, to think  innovatively, take action and influence a different future in the region.


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