Archive for the ‘innovation by design’ Category

Designed as a catalyst for societal change, our winning concept for health promoting “centres of influence” in South Africa represents a cognitive leap


Some situations warrant a big leap in our thinking; we can’t always rely on minor improvements to society’s existing models.

For example, consider the cognitive leap it would take to abandon today’s unsustainable, illness-centric model of so-called health care. Such a leap would involve thinking far beyond today’s mantra of prevention, to instead achieve health-centric living. In other words, salutogenesis instead of pathogenesis.

How could a leap of this magnitude be made?  What would cause people’s habits and priorities to change?

Chris Turner has analyzed notable leaps in recent history to determine common ingredients for success. In other words, he recognizes how the seemingly impossible can become inevitable. In his new book The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy, he presents these and other ideas for instigating big change:

– recast change as a liberating economic opportunity, rather than an extra burden

– create a new understanding of value and necessity (note that it took 5,000 years to put wheels on luggage)

– help people create conditions that make the most of their lives

From a Globe and Mail book review:

Any energy leap, Turner says, also has to involve the restoration of public places. After Copenhagen took the automobile off its streets and gave pedestrians the freedom to stroll or cycle in the 1970s, urban life became human again. The Danes understand that there is life between buildings and that livable cities nourish culture instead of machines. The mayors of Bogota and Medellin also discovered that the best way to fight crime and poverty was to ban the automobile.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Liquid Energy

Throughout the industrial age, tips on time management – essentially, how to pack more productive activities into each work day – were perennially popular.

Only in recent years have we seen a major shift in emphasis from merely “being productive” to the bigger question: Why squeeze more activities into a day unless we’re sure that all of those tasks need to be done in the first place?

And thus “lean management” was born – aimed at rooting out time-eating bureaucracy and wasteful work. Instead of doing more stuff more efficiently, the idea is to look upstream so we can eliminate low value tasks and bad management practices.

NOW COMES THE EVEN BIGGER QUESTION: Is it enough to minimize time wasted, or should we also obsess about how we expend and renew our energy? In the context of causing innovation to happen, burnout and depression at work are not only health issues, they lead to lost business opportunities. In other words, we may somehow find the time to be creative, but we must also possess the energy for innovation.

In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,” Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy examine costs, causes and remedies for today’s human “energy crisis.” They recommend practices for renewing four dimensions of personal energy: physical energy, emotional energy, mental energy and spiritual energy.

This month’s HBR addresses ways of working that rob us of time via “Lean Knowledge Work.” Ideally, recovered time could be directed toward innovation. As well in this issue, the highly-regarded Rosabeth Moss Kanter observes, some of the greatest harm in organizations today is being caused by “callousness about people’s time.”

Management theorists and workers on the ground are still in the early days of understanding the relationship between time, energy and innovation. This is a fruitful area of study that deserves special attention. Perhaps as an alternative to Master of Business Administration, future students will be able to pursue an inspiring Master of Business Vitality degree.

– Sharon VanderKaay

artwork: Susan Ottevanger

“Breakthrough in the Shower” by Sean Stanwick


Anyone who is waiting for a predictable process for breakthrough innovation (similar to TQM or BPR) may find the illustration above instructive.

Fresh insight depends on favorable ingredients and conditions – more like improvising with a recipe than a formula. By contrast, incremental improvements in the design of products and services suit predictable steps and outcomes.

What are some conditions that spawn eureka moments? What is the recipe?

There’s a lot we can learn about how innovation happens by paying attention to everyday situations. For example, my colleague Sean captured his recent insight in the shower by the illustration above; Tye Farrow reports he has new ideas while gardening; I rely on walking to work for fresh perspective.

What do these three activities – showering, gardening and walking – have in common?:

– SUSPENSION of MULTI-TASKING: they allow us to clear our heads

– PERMISSION to WANDER: escape from self-imposed pressure of conflicting priorities

– SPACE to WONDER: they give us the choice to think of nothing

We will be delving further into recipe/cooking/innovation/design similarities in future posts.

– Sharon VanderKaay

aerial suburbs alienation

The suburbs are crying out for love and attention. Fifty years of car-centric design intended to be driven past as quickly as possible has taken a visible toll. Scarcity of interesting, safe places for walking, bicycling and social activities is increasingly seen as a root cause for escalating chronic diseases and mental health concerns.

Meanwhile, changing demographics and focus on resource conservation are stimulating a growing demand for suburban revitalization. In other words, the time has come to re-imagine unhealthy, underperforming acres of asphalt, retail and office parks as sustainable, diverse, walkable communities.

More than eighty examples of imaginative suburban transformations are presented in Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. Their case studies include the site of a former 100-acre mall in Lakewood, Colorado that has been redeveloped over a ten-year period into twenty-three walkable urban blocks, publicly owned streets and LEED-certified buildings. This successful venture has inspired eight of thirteen area malls to move forward with plans for applying urban design principles to their suburban settings.

However, Dunham-Jones reminds us that technical specifications for walkable communities are not enough. Design quality must also be seen as  a vital ingredient of healthy places.

As we reflect on historic failures of infamous urban renewal projects we are reminded that walk-able planning does not guarantee walk-motivating reality. Boring, nature-free streetscapes will lead to bad investments in suburban renewal.

Through our work with clients and the public we’ve developed five diagnostic questions – known as Vital Signs – to help people understand some of the most basic elements of design quality. We created these plain-language (non-academic/ architect lingo) questions so that citizens can look at their built environment with a critical eye, rather than settle for a monotonous “walkable” scheme:

1.  Nature: Does the design make connections with the natural world?

2.  Authenticity: Does the design convey locally-inspired character?

3.  Variety: Does the design provide visual interest and support diverse activities?

4.  Vitality: Does the design convey energy and stimulate social interaction?

5.  Legacy: Are we creating a design that is beyond “sustainable” in terms of advancing long-term health and prosperity?

NOTE: There will be a Retrofitting and Planning Sustainable Suburbs conference in Toronto Dec 9 & 10.

What are the long-term effects of environments that sap our energy? How do people compensate for being deprived of visual sustenance? Is there a correlation between quantities of asphalt and obesity rates? Do unhealthy weight and depression begin with places that people must endure rather than enjoy?

In short, do people eat to forget these desolate, dispirited places?

Recently, sustainability advocates have joined the decades-old call by urban planners to create walkable neighborhoods. But now we must also calculate the impact of physical surroundings in terms of whether or not they feed our psyche and reduce stress. For example, it’s worth noting that a project can be rated LEED® Platinum, yet the design may have a negative impact on our health because it’s deadly boring or hostile.

To highlight these connections, it may be worthwhile to establish an Asphalt-Obesity Index.

– Sharon VanderKaay

  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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