Imagination Strategy

General Business

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Nicholas Negroponte

Imagination Strategy: Reboot your business

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London

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Professor Nicholas Negroponte has made his name by being ahead of the curve. He founded and directed MIT’s legendary Media Lab, helped create WIRED Magazine and, in 1995 famously forecast the future in his best-selling book, Being Digital.

Most recently he has achieved the unthinkable and produced a “$100 laptop”, the XO, that has been distributed to children throughout the developing world in the pioneering project, One Laptop per Child (OLPC). Clearly a visionary, Negroponte has also turned his ideas into action. Speaking to the London Business Forum (LBF) at London’s Southbank Centre – itself ground-breaking for its design at the time – Negroponte was to offer answers to two questions: Where do new ideas come from? And, what environment generates them?

Negroponte’s role in the creation of MIT’s Media Lab certainly qualifies him to answer. The Media Lab is renowned for its culture of innovation; it is responsible for developing many of the technologies that have made the “digital revolution” possible. Its culture, explained Negroponte, is largely due to phenomena that are unique to it.

Unlike other academic institutions, the faculty members work amongst and with the students – atelier-style. This level of contact and communication makes way for a greater level of creativity and breaks down the hierarchical structure that is often found in the study of more traditional subjects. The Lab, explained Negroponte, is where the future is not only envisioned but brought to life. His vision of the digital future was accurate because, “it wasn’t a prediction, it was an extrapolation.”

Added into the mix at the Media Lab is what Negroponte called “the fountain of youth phenomenon.” There is a 20-25% turnover of 18-23 year olds every year and this regular injection of new talent ensures that the Lab does not stagnate, Negroponte told the LBF. The Media Lab has been designed so that people of different ages and backgrounds with varying ideas and opinions come together to create a breeding ground for new ideas.

“I believe that design will become strategy for many people,” Negroponte told the LBF. History, he continued, remembers design and art “not businesses.” Great design is what will be imprinted on the consumer psyche. When making design part of your business strategy, “incrementalism is the enemy,” he warned. Where organisations have a piecemeal approach, making something better in small steps, concepts are refined but it can be constraining and prevent the generation of fresh big ideas argued Negroponte.

The right kind of research in an environment like the Media Lab allows people to experiment and follow the path that the big ideas take them. It helps, Negroponte told the LBF, if you are not realistic when innovating as a common sense approach often stops ideas before they’ve even had the chance to be explored: “Common sense is common.”

Negroponte’s own big idea, the $100 laptop, was he said thought unrealistic when he first put it to others. The idea is driven by Negroponte’s belief that connectivity is increasingly a human right, one that is often “taken for granted” where wide-spread internet access is the norm. OLPC has designed a laptop that empowers the child; the XO is designed to engage the child in their own learning and to encourage collaboration. The project has shown that children take their learning home, both physically taking their laptops home but also using it to teach their parents how to read and write. In areas where OLPC has been particularly successful truancy levels have dropped from 35 to 0%, Negroponte revealed.

The XO laptop is a product that has had a far reaching social impact that has been achieved through successful design. From one big idea, every minute detail has been considered to create a product specifically designed for its end user. Negroponte and his team have considered everything to produce a light-weight laptop that functions not only as a standard, fully connected laptop but also as an e-book reader and games console – it is in fact the first to incorporate both Kindle and iPad displays.

The laptop, Negroponte told the LBF, can be thrown across the floor and bounces rather than breaks. It is designed for constant connectivity and its wireless antennae outdo the typical laptop. In important meetings it is often Negroponte’s XO laptop that has a better connection than his peers.

One of the wonders of great design, Negroponte insisted, is its simplicity. There is an enormous amount of thought behind this though he said, “simplicity is complex.” Apple is one such example of a company who have achieved this: “Their software isn’t any better than Microsoft but their industrial design certainly is.”

Negroponte admitted that it can be difficult to recreate the conditions needed for a creative environment in the corporate world. If new ideas come from “differences,” then a well-run company that hires and trains for attitude is not constructed to foster a culture of “differences.” Negroponte believes that many ideas are born from “misunderstandings”, which come from the meeting of different perspectives. “Mix the elements so that we can maximise the differences,” he stressed.

Looking out rather than in is another step to innovation, Negroponte told the LBF. “Peripheral vision,” he explained, “is the right kind of vision.” This is something that people can actively do to generate ideas and, he said, “For some people their children are the lens through which they see the outside.” Children see the world differently and are exposed to new ideas and technologies, which their parents may not have come across or thought about in the same way.

“Being digital”, Negroponte suggested, is more than “computer literacy.” He believes that this has been proven by OLPC where the technology has not only connected children in remote areas but has had a more lasting impact on their lives – the way they think and learn. The XO Laptop has been designed, said Negroponte, to be “seamlessly integrated” in the lives of the end user and more than just a learning tool to be used in school.

The tablet, believes Negroponte, is another example of design changing behaviour as it brings about a change in posture. Compared to the laptop it offers “more of a book experience.” The full impact of the tablet on our lives, he suggested, is yet to be realised: “I happen to think that the tablet is […] a more fundamental change than most people do.”

Successful design can change the way we live but it starts at an idea. Creating Negroponte's conditions for idea generation may defy convention in most organisations but if design is to become strategy, then a healthy respect for disruption could certainly be the answer. After all, this pioneer has been right before.