Monday statistic

Last year the number of students taking a creative arts exam in the UK fell by 51,000. Arts subjects, including design, drama and art, now account for only 1 in 12 GCSEs. Four years ago it was 1 in 8. A national scandal.

If we want our children – and our children’s children – to compete with machines that can think, I agree with Lucy Noble, Artistic & Commercial Director of the Royal Albert Hall,  that an arts subject should be compulsory at GCSE, although I’d add philosophy to the list of compulsory subjects too.

Can you teach a computer to be curious?

Good question right? But be careful, reinforcement learning isn’t necessarily the same thing as curiousity to my mind. Also, I think curiousity is on a spectrum. Sure you can build carrot/stick and right/wrong motivations into a machine, but can you build a real passion for serendipitous and perhaps illogical and inconvenient encounters? Is curiousity just an alertness to pattern breaking or is it a fundamental desire to know that cannot be taught to people let alone machines?

I guess we’ll find out sooner or later.

Three good articles on the subject.

Harvard Business Review

Quanta

Wired

A biological model of innovation

Can biology teach us anything about innovation? The essence of Darwinism is that progress is created by adaptation to changing circumstances. What starts off as a random mutation often spreads throughout a population to eventually become the norm through a process of natural selection. The same is surely true with innovation. New ideas are mutations created through chaos and adaptation, especially when two or more old ideas combine or reproduce in unusual or unexpected ways. In short, innovation = inheritance (history) + variation + selection.

Serendipity clearly plays an important part in this process and the list of things created by accident is certainly impressive; Aspirin, Band-Aids, credit cards, DNA finger printing, dynamite, inoculation, Jell-O, Ferrari, Lamborghini, microwave ovens, penicillin, ink-jet printers, X-rays, nylon, heart pacemakers, Coca-Cola, Teflon, Vulcanised rubber, Nintendo, Lego, Smart Dust, matches, dynamite (yikes), safety glass, Corn Flakes, Super Glue, Viagra and Velcro to name quite a few.

Pursuing experiments – and tolerating the inevitable failures that result – is therefore one practical way to make an organisation more innovative. But is there is another option? Is there a strategy, process or even a culture that will embed innovative thinking at the very core of an organisation’s being? I think there is.

Think about when individuals and institutions are at their most innovative. You might think about the cross-fertilisation of disciplines and experience. This is indeed one way to kick-start innovative thinking and it’s not that difficult to design spaces where diverse people will bump into each other in a random manner. Office kitchens and staircases immediately spring to mind. Lunch is even better. A Harvard Business Review article once claimed that P&G had attempted to “systemise the serendipity” that so often sparks innovation. When the Hollywood producer Brian Grazer heard about this he commented: “that’s what we call lunch.”

Another route is to combine the energy and naivety of youth with the wisdom and cynicism of old age. This can work too. Reverse mentoring is a very practical idea championed by the likes of former GE boss Jack Welsh. Or there’s the thought of recruiting both the newest and the oldest members of staff for brainstorms. Diversity in terms of skills is key, but so too are age and experience.

And, of course, there’s the idea that if you generate enough ideas one will surely be good enough to use. This does occasionally work, although in my experience not very often. I prefer the opposite, which involves thinking inside a small box rather than thinking outside of one. Read, for example, Adam Morgan’s book called A Beautiful Constraint.*

So, what’s my big idea for generating big ideas? What’s my million- dollar idea? Death. That’s right, demise, departure, disappearance, extinction, the grim reaper. Hold on, am I seriously suggesting that we kill companies and organisations just to reinvent them?

Sort of.

It strikes me that true clarity only arrives occasionally and generally it’s when we think we are going to die. If we are looking down the barrel of a gun – or a microscope – we tend to see our death (and with it our entire life) in high definition. This creates a tremendous sense of urgency to put it mildly. This might not be of much use if we have seconds to live, but if we are given weeks or months we’re often able to focus on the things we really want to do and separate what’s merely urgent from what’s actually important. Relationships are rekindled, ideas are hatched, things get reinvented.

Sometimes we are fortunate. We think we are going to die, but we don’t. The tests or the analysis were wrong. The threat failed to materialise. We were lucky. Sometimes the change resulting from serious threats is enduring, although more often than not we revert to our bad old ways once the grim reaper has gone elsewhere. This is true for institutions as much as it’s true for individuals.

One of the reasons that Apple, sometimes cited as the world’s most valuable company, is so innovative might be to do with the fact it was 90 days away from being bankrupt back in 1997. Similar near death experiences abound, ranging from Telsa, SpaceX and KFC to Airbnb, FedEx and IBM.

So, the second million-dollar question must surely be this…can you fake your own death in order to think straight or to become more innovative? Believe it or not a company in South Korea once tried to do precisely this, although it backfired somewhat.

Back in 2008 there was a South Korean craze called ‘well-dying’ in which employees would write and then read out their last words in fake funeral services. Organisations such as Samsung and Hyundai sent their employees on courses organised by Korea Life Consulting in order to question their life paths and priorities. The idea got a lot of bad press at the time, partly because people were required to get inside a real coffin, but it wasn’t a wholly bad idea.

Asking people what they’d do if they had a day, a week or a year left to live can be a good way to reveal what they really think about things, including themselves. Asking a leadership team inside a large organisation to do the same is a similarly good way to reveal not only priorities, but potentially to revaluate strategies too. What might you do differently if you didn’t have to worry about regulation, unions, governments, quarterly earnings and so forth?

After all, if you have absolutely nothing to lose you will behave very differently than if you do. You will try things that are riskier and be far less concerned with what others might think of you. In short, you will be brave and be led by your heart as much as your head. You’ll dream big and be less inclined to get stuck on practicalities.And, of course, we only truly appreciate what we have been given when there’s a real chance that these same things will be taken away. It is only through death that we really learn to live.

As Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Try using a narrative of rapidly changing circumstances and ultimately the imminent extinction of your organisation to radically revaluate where you are going and how you might get there.Or write an obituary for your organisation and then treat it as a strategy for reincarnation.

Carpe diem.

* A Beautiful Constraint: How to transfer your limitations into advantages, and why it’s everyone’s business by Adam Morgan

A Darwinian model of innovation

Can biology teach us anything about innovation? The essence of Darwinism is that progress is created by adaptation to changing circumstances. What starts off as a random mutation often spreads throughout a population to eventually become the norm through a process of natural selection. The same is surely true with innovation. New ideas are mutations created through chaos and adaptation, especially when two or more old ideas combine or reproduce in unusual or unexpected ways.

Serendipity clearly plays an important part in this process and the list of things created by accident is certainly impressive; Aspirin, Band-Aids, credit cards, DNA finger printing, dynamite, inoculation, Jell-O, Ferrari, Lamborghini, microwave ovens, penicillin, ink-jet printers, X-rays, nylon, heart pacemakers, Coca-Cola, Teflon, Vulcanised rubber, Nintendo, Lego, Smart Dust, matches, dynamite (yikes), safety glass, Corn Flakes, Super Glue, Viagra and Velcro to name quite a few.

Pursuing experiments – and tolerating the inevitable failures that result – is therefore one practical way to make an organisation more innovative. But is there is another option? Is there a strategy, process or even a culture that will embed innovative thinking at the very core of an organisation’s being? I think there is.

Think about when individuals and institutions are at their most innovative. You might think about the cross-fertilisation of disciplines and experience. This is indeed one way to kick-start innovative thinking and it’s not that difficult to design spaces where diverse people will bump into each other in a random manner. Office kitchens and staircases immediately spring to mind. Lunch is even better. A Harvard Business Review article once claimed that P&G had attempted to “systemise the serendipity” that so often sparks innovation. When the Hollywood producer Brian Grazer heard about this he commented: “that’s what we call lunch.”

Another route is to combine the energy and naivety of youth with the wisdom and cynicism of old age. This can work too. Reverse mentoring is a very practical idea championed by the likes of former GE boss Jack Welsh. Or there’s the thought of recruiting both the newest and the oldest members of staff for brainstorms. Diversity in terms of skills is key, but so too are age and experience.

And, of course, there’s the idea that if you generate enough ideas one will surely be good enough to use. This does occasionally work, although in my experience not very often. I prefer the opposite, which involves thinking inside a small box rather than thinking outside of one. Read, for example, Adam Morgan’s book called A Beautiful Constraint.*

So, what’s my big idea for generating big ideas? What’s my million- dollar idea? Death. That’s right, demise, departure, disappearance, extinction, the grim reaper. Hold on, am I seriously suggesting that we kill companies and organisations just to reinvent them?

Sort of.

It strikes me that true clarity only arrives occasionally and generally it’s when we think we are going to die. If we are looking down the barrel of a gun – or a microscope – we tend to see our death (and with it our entire life) in high definition. This creates a tremendous sense of urgency to put it mildly. This might not be of much use if we have seconds to live, but if we are given weeks or months we’re often able to focus on the things we really want to do and separate what’s merely urgent from what’s actually important. Relationships are rekindled, ideas are hatched, things get reinvented.

Sometimes we are fortunate. We think we are going to die, but we don’t. The tests or the analysis were wrong. The threat failed to materialise. We were lucky. Sometimes the change resulting from serious threats is enduring, although more often than not we revert to our bad old ways once the grim reaper has gone elsewhere. This is true for institutions as much as it’s true for individuals.

One of the reasons that Apple, sometimes cited as the world’s most valuable company, is so innovative might be to do with the fact it was 90 days away from being bankrupt back in 1997. Similar near death experiences abound, ranging from Telsa, SpaceX and KFC to Airbnb, FedEx and IBM.

So, the second million-dollar question must surely be this…can you fake your own death in order to think straight or to become more innovative? Believe it or not a company in South Korea once tried to do precisely this, although it backfired somewhat.

Back in 2008 there was a South Korean craze called ‘well-dying’ in which employees would write and then read out their last words in fake funeral services. Organisations such as Samsung and Hyundai sent their employees on courses organised by Korea Life Consulting in order to question their life paths and priorities. The idea got a lot of bad press at the time, partly because people were required to get inside a real coffin, but it wasn’t a wholly bad idea.

Asking people what they’d do if they had a day, a week or a year left to live can be a good way to reveal what they really think about things, including themselves. Asking a leadership team inside a large organisation to do the same is a similarly good way to reveal not only priorities, but potentially to revaluate strategies too. What might you do differently if you didn’t have to worry about regulation, unions, governments, quarterly earnings and so forth?

After all, if you have absolutely nothing to lose you will behave very differently than if you do. You will try things that are riskier and be far less concerned with what others might think of you. In short, you will be brave and be led by your heart as much as your head. You’ll dream big and be less inclined to get stuck on practicalities.And, of course, we only truly appreciate what we have been given when there’s a real chance that these same things will be taken away. It is only through death that we really learn to live.

As Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Try using a narrative of rapidly changing circumstances and ultimately the imminent extinction of your organisation to radically revaluate where you are going and how you might get there.

Write an obituary for your organisation and then treat it as a strategy for reincarnation.
Carpe diem.

* A Beautiful Constraint: How to transfer your limitations into advantages, and why it’s everyone’s business by Adam Morgan

Thought for Thursday

img_1115

“And what was the true object of this superstitious stuff? A final clue came from “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.” Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.”

Taken from Salon, ‘TED talks are lying to you’ by Thomas Frank
(Article originally published in Harper’s)

London’s best places (& spaces) for inspirational thinking

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Further to my post earlier this month about London’s best thinking spaces I’ve been thinking, appropriately, about some further places to think. But it’s become exceedingly obvious that this subject could be split into two or even three distinct parts. My original post was, I suppose, about inspiring places to hold idea generation meetings in London. But I think there’s also a need for places where individuals can think alone – without the need for Post-it notes. And then there are places where individuals might want to think about things that have nothing whatsoever to do with work – spiritual places perhaps.

I’ll get to the last set of places in due course (maybe), but here’s a more comprehensive list for the first two. BTW, if you’re wondering where I’m writing this, the answer is the 41st floor of The Shard, the tallest building in the European Union (image above and entry later on below).

London’s best places to hold inspirational meetings*
The wine cellar at the Stamford Hotel

You might need to like wine for this to work, but if it’s an unusual venue you after for a medium-large dinner this 380-year-old cellar might be it (see image below).

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The material’s library, University College, London, WC1

If you’re a designer and you want to be around inspiring people and materials try this (below) as something a little bit different.

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The solar shuttle on the serpentine, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, W2

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Slightly bonkers, but why not hire the whole thing (above) and go for a float on a nice day. Ideas need to be agreed by the time your time runs out.

The rooftop bar at Boundary, 2-4 Boundary Street, E2

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Again, if you want some fresh air to fuel your thinking try this rooftop in Hackney (above).

The rooftop Terrace at Madison, 1 New Change St, St Paul’s, EC4

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And another (above).

The Kensington Roof Gardens, London, W8

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And another…if you’ve got a bigger budget (Kensington roof gardens above)

The Skybar (and private room) at the Gerkin (Searcy’s).

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The top of the Gerkin (above) has some great spaces. I did a catered breakfast talk here for PWC and it worked really well.

Inner Temple Hall, EC4

London’s livery companies are worth a look if you want a sense of history (I’ve spoken at Stationers Hall twice) as is Inner Temple. Temple Hall (below).

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The Shard

See main image at head of this post, but you can hire a variety of spaces in the hotel and the view is just as good as the observation deck.  Hutong, a Chinese restaurant, which is accessed via a separate entrance, also has some good small (8-12 people?) private dining spaces with fantastic views, especially at night (image below).

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Somerset House, London, WC2

More of a big budget venue, but the river terrace is worth consideration, especially in summer. (Image below, Seamen’s hall).

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The ‘business playground’ at Pullman St Pancras station, London N1C

A bit ‘out of the box’ especially the boxes that come with the room (below).

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The Balcony on the 28th Floor at Galvan at the Hilton Park Lane, London W1

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The best view of London…in the 1970s (except for Telecomm Tower, RIP, of course).

Private dining room at Bob Bob Richard, 1 Upper James St, Soho, W1.
Private dining room that’s a cross between the Orient Express (with Agatha Christie on board) and a private yacht that’s gone a bit, well, overboard. Strictly for Russian Oligarchs.

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The Delaunay, Covent Garden, 55, Aldwych, WC2
Another private dining room (below) that feels a bit like a private train carriage from the 1930s. Edge of the City rather than Soho this time.

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Daphne’s, South Kensington, London, SW3.
Yet another private dining room, but this time with light. The roof comes off in summer.

(Daphne’s below)

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The British Museum

The British Museum. How could I not include this? Hire a space or just walk into the Great Court, one of London’s most amasing spaces, by Foster & Partners. (Image below).

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Tate Modern art gallery

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Tate Modern? If it floats your boat. Actually I was part of a London Business School workshop in a hired space here. The room looked out across the Thames and worked out really well. Turbine Hall (above) is great for solo thinking.

Museum of brands

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Something a bit off-beat (above). Perfect for FMCG company brainstorms. You can also just wander around by yourself and work out how old you really are (“OMG, I remember those”).

Kew gardens

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Not much mention of outdoor thinking spaces so far. Just go for a walk, even if there’s twenty of you. Try somewhere busy (the length of Oxford Street perhaps) or somewhere quiet, like a London park. Kew Gardens (above) can be hired for events.

The Gallery at the Imagination building, South Crescent, WC1

This (below) feels a little like something from Star Wars. Bring your own storm troppers.

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Other thoughts for corporate events? Try the ICA, Museum of London, Royal Academy, Wallace Collection and the Wellcome Collection.

London’s best places to inspire individual thinking**

Here’s the second set of locations, although, as you can see, there’s considerable overlap.
British Museum reading room

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(Above British Museum Reading Room…Shhhhh)

The London library, 14, St James’s square, SW1

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(London Library above – you’ll need to join).

The garden of St Dunstan-in-the-East, Idol lane, EC3

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(Garden of St Dunstan above – you may find me here in summer)

Sir John Soane’s museum, London, WC2

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(Soane above – possibly my favourite museum in London).

Dennis Severs house, London, E1

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Dennis Severs House (above). If you need a blast from the past….

The conservatory at the Barbican, Silk Street, London, EC2

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Nobody seems to know about this – possibly because finding the entrance to the Barbican is almost impossible (hint: look for the escalators just off the roundabout. Go see the Museum of London while you are there).

Geffrye Museum walled herb garden, London, E2

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Geffrye Museum (above). A good place to think about anything to do with the home and household goods.

 

Chelsea Physic garden, London, SW3

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(Chelsea Physic – above. Another of London’s hidden gems).

The cake shop at the London Review bookshop, London, WC1A

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Slightly off the radar, but a lovely quiet spot to think.

Smithfield Meat market
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Smithfield (Above, some time ago). Go about 5am when London is waking up. Good for breakfast from about 3am onwards.

Victoria & Albert Museum.

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V&A (above) if you must – never cared for either of them myself.

Design Museum

(Design Museum below. A must for designers seeking inspiration).

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Horniman museum

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Another of my favourite museums above (Alongside the Soane and the Ashmolean in Oxford). The gardens are great too. All built from tea if I remember the story correctly. BTW, nice Buzzfeed link here on amazing London spaces, including Horniman museum.

Waterstone’s bookshop, London, WC1E

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A Shop? Yes. A giant bookshop. I used to have an office a few feet away from here and would wander in aimlessly from time to time. I would often walk out with an idea, largely due to the serendipitous nature of bookshops. (Image above).

Some other ideas (I’m too tired to add more images).

Science Museum

National Portrait Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Natural History Museum

Albert Bridge to Tower Bridge walk – but try running it.

Running track in in Regent’s Park, London, NW1

Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, EC4

Or Even song at Westminster Abbey
(All getting into category 3 a bit here!)

A few other offbeat places to think…
Highgate Cemetery

Great sunrise spots
(Do sunrise, not sunset…energy is more positive

The natural swimming pond at King’s Cross, London, N1C
Or try the sauna!

Feeding the ducks in St James’s Park, London, SW1. Got kids? Get ducks!

Driving around the entire M25 (try it!)

——

By the way, if you’ve found a space but need a speaker, get in touch!

 

* Most of these places will need to be booked well in advance.

** The assumption here is that you’ll wander around in relative silence. If you try to hold a ‘meeting’ you will probably be asked to leave. Many of these spaces do, however, have meeting rooms and other spaces that can be hired.

*** If you’re looking for other restaurants with private rooms I’d suggest you look at Harden’s restaurant guide.

 

 

Links between science fiction and science fact

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How Ideas Happen

Here’s a perfect example of how random events combine to create ideas and insights. I’ve been writing something about whether or not forecasting the future is futile or functional. It’s been a disaster. It jumps around, it doesn’t flow and I’m not really sure what the key thought is. I’ll persist for a while, but my prediction is that it’s heading for the wastebasket.

At about the same time as writing this piece I was at Imperial College and visited the science fiction library. Nothing dramatic, although the experience sparked off a thought about the extent to which science fiction influences invention. If you took a long enough time period would sci-fi writers prove to be better than futurologists at predicting the future? This didn’t really go anywhere initially, although a couple of lines in my piece did reference this thought and I had the idea of a call-out box (above) showing a couple of ideas in science fiction that became science fact.

A week later I’m at Imperial again and it suddenly hit me that you could create a rather wonderful graphic showing the connections between imagination and invention. With enough examples (50?, 100?) you could possibly make an interesting point about the time lag between speculation and appearance. For example, is the time between these two points getting shorter?

Very rough pencil sketch to come….