Google's industrial lab

107wide The Nov/Dec 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review has an interesting article on the industrial lab side of Google, which asks - using the new name of Google's parent company - What will Alphabet be when it grows up? The article's subtitle - To truly change the world, Google's new holding company will need something that has eluded many previous industrial labs: an effective commercialization strategy - gives a glimpse of the challenges ahead. It analyzes Google's reorganization in terms of "the profitable parts of the Google empire" or "core Google" and "all the parts of the vast empire of the vast empire that don't make money," including the R&D lab Google X. Yet, the article focuses on a far more interesting story that arises from the organization: will Alphabet [the new name for Google's parent company] be able to demonstrate a productive new path for industrial innovation? 

The author, Jon Gertner, reminds us of Bell Labs, which "was not only the country's most elite industrial lab; it was, for many decades, among the world's most elite institutions for research in mathematics, physics and material science." He emphasizes that "while much of Bell Labs' reputation rests upon the breakthroughs of its research department, its less glamorous but far larger development department did much of the organization's heroic work." Another difference is that, while "Bell Labs organized its R&D efforts around communications-related pursuits", "Google has consistently and intentionally funded expensive R&D work that is unrelated to its core business."

Gertner then describes how Google has been able to dodge Wall Street's pressure for short-term, risk-averse wins thanks to "the insane profitability of Google's advertising business" and "Page and Brin's extraordinary... desire to spend money on risky new ideas." (He uses the expression "Medici-like patronage".) Overall, Gertner argues toward "organizing complex, innovative efforts around particular technologies" and asks: "How do you commercialize advances unrelated to your core strengths?" 

What theater can teach us about innovation, or: Seven Henry V

71FMVSPZXSL 61DO8cauF5L._SY679_ 51iHZ17DtkL._AA160_ Over the past few years I have seen seven "Henry V", which is not the same thing as watching "Henry V" seven times. Really, it is not. I am talking about the coming-of-age-as-a-leader play by William Shakespeare, which I saw in seven different forms:

  1. The 2013 production at Folger Theater in DC,
  2. The DVD of the movie adaptation by Sir Laurence Olivier, 
  3. The Amazon Instant Video of the movie with Tom Hiddleston in the title role, as part of the BBC's Hollow Crown series,
  4. The bare-bones production of the play at Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires,
  5. The DruidShakespeare production of the tetralogy as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City,
  6. The DVD of the Shakespeare's Globe production with Jamie Parker in the title role,
  7.  The 2015 production at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

Why did I do that? I went to see the Folger Theater production because of the hype surrounding the actor in the title role, and that actor came down with the flu before I saw the play, and in the performance I attended the cover read the entire text of the his role from the script hidden under his mantle after the intermission. I kid you not. We spectators spent an awfully long time staring at someone who didn't know his lines, and no one at Folger ever apologized for it. I've actually sworn never to set foot in that theater again. This was not an auspicious beginning to my fascination with "Henry V". 

This play will be familiar with leadership professors around the world because it depicts a young king thrown into the arena of power after dissolute early days and the death of his father, the previous king. As such it remains very relevant today to young students everywhere with aspirations of leadership. (Henry IV Part 1 shows the future king with his "mentor" and bad influence Falstaff, in a life dominated by parties and larcenies. In Henry IV Part 2 the newly anointed king repudiates Falstaff and breaks his heart in the process. In Henry V the young king comes into his own. The tetralogy should be studied in business schools anywhere if business schools had enough foresight to peer into the future. And for those who are reading this post with the proper amount of coffee and wonder how the three plays of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V make a tetralogy, it is because they are preceded by Richard II, where we see how the future Henry IV usurps power. He has some grounds for it, yet he still usurps it. The lack of legitimacy of his power hangs over the next plays.)

After the DC mishap I didn't see "Henry V" again until I became interested in it because of a side project, and watched "The Hollow Crown", which is a TV dramatization of the plays in the tetralogy. Tom Hiddleston is an amazing Henry V who strikes exactly the right note at every moment. Yet, the movie is not a videotaped version of the play, so it gives an excellent idea of what the play is about without giving viewers an idea of what a production of that play would be like. The same criticism could be wielded at the Laurence Olivier movie version of the play, which gives us a glimpse at the beginning of what a production of the play would have looked like during Shakespeare's times before turning into a movie with Sir Laurence Olivier sailing to France. 

The next "real" stage production of Henry V I saw after DC was in the Berkshires. A handful of actors covered all the roles in a bare-bones stage with minimal staging where a chair or an extra here and there suggested a church or an army. The seats were memorably uncomfortable, but the production was mesmerizing. This is when I began to flesh out my theory about what theater can teach us about innovation. 

Today plenty of would-be experts, from TED talks speakers to business school professors, pretend to tell us how we can become more innovative. Innovation has become a buzzword, who wouldn't want to use his own innate skills to think outside the box and help his company shine? What strikes me is that no one has attempted to draw a walkable path for people who seek to become more innovative and don't know where to start. The advice in professional development books often sounds trite and rushed, as if the authors had rushed to make their publisher's deadline that now allows them to collect non-negligible royalties from the general population's desire to bring true, original value to the workforce. But there is an obvious counterpart to business gurus' platitudes that would allow general audiences to get a glimpse of what thinking outside the box actually looks like: watching several productions of a given play. This is easier to do when you live near New York City, but you can also watch many excellent productions online (especially from London's National Theater or Shakespeare's Globe) and contrast them with local productions of landmark plays not only by William Shakespeare but also - in the US - Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill.

Theater today offers a unique opportunity to contrast the choices made by the creative staff for various productions. In these days where people vituperate online against others who don't share their opinion, theater provides a unique avenue to consider and tolerate different takes on a common object, such as a Shakespeare play. It is also much safer to express disagreements about a play by Shakespeare than about certain politicians, lest we offend those politicians' supporters. Watching different productions of the same play can thus help widen people's understanding of what is possible and what an author is trying to say. This shows outside-the-box thinking and points toward off-the-beaten-path interpretations that pack a greater punch than the productions the audience has grown used for. 

It also documents less-than-fortunate ideas that have failed to deliver on their initial punch, although they remain to the credit of the talented creative staff. For instance, I felt that the DruidShakespeare condensed tetralogy, shown in one afternoon when I saw it in New York City, failed to build connections with the audience, so that we spectators did not care much about either Henry IV or Henry V, although the gender-neutral casting (read: women were cast as both Henries) would have provided a valuable opportunity to discuss the different standards of leadership across genders today. But you must connect with your audience members before you can make them think, and I don't think the DruidShakespeare performance achieved the first goal.

The PSF production had talented actors, including Zack Robidas in the title role and his real-life wife Marnie Schulenburg as his love interest Katherine of France, but the sets looked like something put together by a (very talented) set designer struggling with (very minimal) budget. To give you a hint, the set took its inspiration from the Globe's "wooden O" in the prologue, but in contrast with the Sir Laurence Olivier DVD, which shows at its beginning what a Shakespeare production would have looked like, there was nothing to beautify the wooden set later on. It didn't even look particularly cheap, but it did end up looking cheap when it became clear that would be the only set used throughout the performance. And it didn't look like the set designer was a spendthrift, but rather struggled with very tight budget constraints. In that context, the person made heroic efforts to present a remarkable, spellbinding performance, and the production was very well directed. Yet, it won't be a production I remember long.

My favorite production ended up being that of Shakespeare's Globe with Jamie Parker in the title role, although it is very uneven - and, since I watched it on DVD, doesn't begin to tell you what it feels like to attend a performance with those actors and see them create their roles night after night. But because it highlights differences in interpretations, both from the director and from the actors, seeing multiple productions of a well-known play highlights innovation and creativity in ways that the most inspiring business book can't. In fact I believe that in order to foster innovation we should have theater festivals with one play as the theme, where different creative teams come up with different takes on the play. This would be far more conducive to innovation in the workforce than having self-styled business gurus peddle their latest writings. Owing one's creativity at work to a particularly thought-provoking take on Shakespeare - what can be better than that? 

I'll leave you with Jamie Parker giving the famous Crispin's Day speech. Enjoy!

But really if you watch only one thing, make it BBC's The Hollow Crown. Here is the trailer.

MIT's Langer Lab

The May/June issue of Technology Review has an interesting article on MIT professor Robert Langer ScD'74 entitled The Problem Solver. Langer, who has co-authored more than 800 patents, launched dozens of start-ups and received many of the most prestigious awards in his profession, has been extensively portrayed in the media as one of the few academic researchers who have been consistently able to bring their innovations to market. His lab has even been the focus of a 2004 Harvard Business School case study (perhaps the single most powerful sign that a researcher has truly made it in the business world): The Langer Lab: Commercializing Science. More recently, he was profiled in 2009 in Nature and in 2012 in The New York Times. But the Technology Review article probably offers the most comprehensive portrayal of both the man's career path and his research. It explains the science really well but also uses many quotes and proceeds sequentially in Langer's career with many mentions of his collaborators, reinforcing the message that science and innovation are not one-person endeavors - in fact, his lab includes almost 100 members. (The article is in the MIT News section, so I don't think it is available if you're not an alum.)

Here is a great quote by Langer in a Q&A with Science Magazine: "When you’re a student, you’re judged by how well you answer questions. Somebody else asks the questions, and if you give good answers, you’ll get a good grade. But in life, you’re judged by how good your questions are. You want students and postdocs to transition from giving good answers to asking good questions. Then they’ll become great professors, great entrepreneurs, great something—if they ask good questions."

(The rest of the answer reads: "Then they'll become great professors, great entrepreneurs, great something—if they ask good questions. When somebody is a student or postdoc, what is going to help them through is to be stretched. That may be a little bit uncomfortable. But feeling some of the discomfort, knowing how to get through it—the fact that you can prove to yourself that you can get through, and you can do well—that is wonderful, as long as it is not too painful.")

Langer has an unusual approach to assigning projects to students: he says he gives the hardest problems to the undergraduates, because they will bring new perspective and the more senior members will pitch in to help. This fosters out-of-the-box thinking and collaboration, and gives legitimacy to the junior members.

A common theme in the articles I've read about Langer is his accessibility: he supposedly responds to most emails within minutes. I wonder whether this willingness to mentor lab members, in addition with his stated goal of genuinely wanting to help people, hasn't played the most successful role in the success of his lab. In fact, Langer himself is quoted as saying in the Technology Review article: "A lot of areas I've gotten into because this friend or postdoc or company was interested." If Langer had had a different personality, perhaps those acquaintances would never have contacted him with their problem. His students might also have been less eager to follow in his footsteps and become professors in their own right if he hadn't set such an example.  

Here is a 18min (accessible, engaging, very well delivered and full of stories) TEDx talk given by Langer in New York City in 2012 about biomaterials in the 21st century.

Innovation at MIT

Spectrum_Spring2015_cover-360x556The Spring issue of MIT Spectrum is devoted to innovation. It follows the release in December of the report "The MIT Innovation Initiative: Sustaining and Extending a Legacy of Innovation" and the creation of the MIT Innovation Initiative. The December report highlights MIT's legacy of innovation, the engagement of the MIT Community and MIT's primary areas of focus to accelerate innovation: (i) strengthening and expanding MIT's innovation capabilities, (ii) cultivating innovation communities, (iii) developing transformative infrastructure and (iv) promoting the science of innovation through the new Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy. Innovation and entrepreneurship resources available at MIT are listed here.

Innovation is a curious topic... so much more popular than research. Who can be against innovation, really? Addressing a problem by creating something new and successfully bringing it to market sounds impossible to oppose, just like (almost) everyone hopes to be a leader rather than a follower and (almost) everyone wants to use their unique skills to the fullest. While there is a bit more pushback against "blind" entrepreneurship, i.e., self-employed people whose companies barely survive from year to year and whose talents could have been used with greater impact in a larger company (although obviously at places like MIT or the Ivy League it is tempting to conflate any startups with the success stories of Facebook and the like), innovation is a concept that doesn't seem to have a downside at the moment. And maybe there is no downside, but even concepts like leadership have been found to have less savory variants than others, and most top artists have had formative periods based on rigor, discipline and apprenticeship (qualities that the media is less enamored of) before they ventured out on their own.

If I had one criticism of the MIT Spectrum articles, which showcase current innovation endeavors at MIT, that would be the focus on single individuals - nowadays few meaningful projects can be completed alone, and there would be value in reporting on those teams worked together to achieve the common goal. (The MIT report released in December 2014 itself debunks the myth of the lone scientist.) But the articles in themselves are so short that it would be hard for any reporter to do the topic any justice.

The MIT Innovation Initiative website is full of helpful links and a highly recommended starting point for anyone interested in those issues.

Google's Creative Lab

Last year, Google ran an interesting experiment in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC): it used Google+ to attempt to redefine the theater-going experience using an online stage. It was called Midsummer Night's Dreaming. You can read about it here and there. It sounds a bit expensive - especially the part that involves new characters - to be easily replicated, but (I think) at the very least opens thought-provoking avenues to complement projects such as "theater/opera/dance at the movies". With 110,000 unique visitors the weekend of the project and an increase by over 700% of the number of followers of the RSC Google+ page, the project was deemed a success. 

Google hit a home run with Gmail many years ago. I also liked Google Reader, but that was discontinued. Google Analytics is also a great service that receives little attention in the mainstream media and has been around for a while. So what sort of services has Google put forward in the recent past? Google Drive has been overshadowed by Dropbox. Google+ never turned into the counterweight to Facebook that some people (including me) hoped it would become. Google Glass will remain for nerds until it is combined with statement-making glasses or sunglasses, if that ever happens. While Apple has been able to repeatedly bring innovative products to market, Google has been closer to coasting on its reputation while securing singles or doubles after the home runs of the past, although some of its marketing campaigns have been very favorably received (see here and there, although you have to wonder if part of the hype isn't due to some of those writers' desire to be hired by Google.)

It's true, though, that Google won the 2012 Print Advertising Competition. Maybe they've become better at marketing than at putting out new, groundbreaking services. Or perhaps Google+ is carving out a niche for itself in the interface between art and technology: another interesting project is the partnership between Google and Tate Modern, This Exquisite Forest. From the Tate website: "Taking as the starting point a series of short animation sequences created by artists represented in Tate’s collection, users of the website and visitors to the installation are invited to draw and animate new sequences and thus continue the ‘seeds’ begun by the artists.  As more sequences are added, the videos dynamically branch out and evolve, forming multiple new visual narratives." 

Below are some excellent tips from Google's Chief Creative Officer Robert Wong to further one's creativity, courtesy of Fast Company.

I also loved his talk for the Future of Storytelling summit. This video was posted by "Future of Storytelling". Please upvote the video on YouTube if you like it!

Google needs to do a lot more about Google+ (or any other service it is currently working on) for it to stop the perception its best innovations are behind it. (If people liked wearing glasses, contact lens manufacturers wouldn't be making so much money...)  One way might be to reposition Google+ as an online venue for ephemeral discussions in response to an event or talk or video. I would imagine, for instance, that it would make a great tool for discussions after NTLive theater broadcasts (broadcasts of live videotapings of certain London plays over the UK and the US) or GlobeOnScreen (a similar idea for Shakespeare's Globe company). But it might need far more sophisticated tools - especially comment display tools - than what is currently available. As an example, you could have a situation - in the "chat room after broadcast of theater play in movie theaters" scenario - where people type comments into comment boxes and the comments that are up-voted appear in bigger font, gathering more attention (similarly to having someone at a party who a lot of people gravitate toward). The comments would show up on the whole screen so that they would be arranged two-dimensionally instead of being stacked on top of each other. My feel is that the comments would need to be written, because Internet connections might not always support video chat involving so many different people and tech glitches would be more frustrating if the whole system relies on video. But I might be wrong.

Then you could arrange replies to the upvoted comments as spokes to the "hubs" made by the main comments. Some layers might need to be hidden if the comment chain reaches a certain length. The user could click on another comment hub to participate in another discussion. (I guess you'd need a system to sift through the comments quickly to see if someone else already made your comments, although repeating other people's point doesn't seem to stop most blog commenters today. But if you want to connect with other people who share your opinion on a given show, you need to be able to find them quickly.) Providing a forum for Google users to interact as a one-time-thing based on a shared experience like theater or a music event, where users would presumably remain civil to each other, using cutting-edge visualization tools for those comments, might not be transformational on a large scale, but could be an idea worth pursuing.

More from DDI2014: MIT Media Lab, Hyper-Efficiency Units and Hyper-Compact Cars

Here is another post about DDI 2014 (check out my "Design vs Innovation" post for the first one). Before I begin, a disclaimer: I did think DDI 2014 was thought-provoking. I really did! It just happens that the topics that most caught my attention did so for bad reasons. In the present case, I'm referring to a presentation that was both on hyper-efficiency units and hyper-compact cars. Let's begin with hyper-efficiency units: tiny, transformable spaces that are made more livable thanks to robotic architecture. The motivation, as presented in the talk, is that cities want to make sure creative types and young graduates can find an affordable place to live within city boundaries instead of being pushed out by gentrification and similar forces. So far so good. But what the team tried to do is to fit as much as possible in the legally minimum livable space in New York City (although Kendall Square was also presented as a possible application area), which the slide said is 29 m^2 or 312 sq feet. Through tech devices that make tables and beds come out or fold in, the space can be made to seem larger than it really is.

Here is what I didn't like about this. The real issue in NYC is that the inaffordability stems from the ever-growing salary gap between Wall Street finance folks and the rest of NYC residents. Trying to mitigate the fact that their ever-increasing salaries allow landlords to extract ever-increasing rents from their tenants by making the tiniest possible space more livable (assuming the tech sensors and robotic arms and all that don't break down, although if it is the landlord's responsibility to fit the space he will surely add a hefty premium for that, and if it is up the tenant he/she probably won't have the money to splurge) seems like putting a Band-Aid on a very serious problem that will not be fixed by such measures. People move out of the cities because, once they get out of school, their idea of affordable housing involves more than staying in an apartment the size of two parking spots. (Plenty of NYers and NJers moved to the part of Pennsylvania right behind the state line so that their money could buy a moderately-sized house with a yard and fairly good schools.) You can put lipstick on a shoebox, but it's still a shoebox. 

The other thing that annoyed me was the description of self-driving mini-cars (that basically have neither a backseat nor a trunk) as the solution of the future to help fit more cars on parking lots. I don't remember what they were called so I'll call them hyper-compact. The speaker explained they have to self-drive to make sure they fit like sardines (from the French expression, "etre entasses comme des sardines", not sure if it carries over in English... imagine the feeling of being piled up in economy class in a long-distance flight and you get the idea) on the parking lot. The mostly young or youngish attendees in the audience were captivated by the demo video of the hyper-compact cars as the future method of choice to travel in cities.

But the thing is, people come to cities from elsewhere too. (Even Cambridge. You just have to sit for 25 minutes after the toll at the Cambridge/Somerville once you leave the Mass Turnpike because everybody is trying to merge on River Street to convince yourself a lot of people come to Cambridge from elsewhere too.) This might be difficult for hipster-creative-types-let's-bike-everywhere-gas-is-bad-do-we-have-a-medal-for-awesomeness-yet-we-are-so-much-better-than-everyone-else, but some people really do need to be driving their cars or pickup trucks for their work. (I drive a small car with excellent gas mileage. Blame someone else for ruining the environment.)

As much as, coming from Europe, I don't particularly care for SUVs or pickup trucks, if your work requires you to go to work sites or travel a lot in parts of the country where the roads can be really bad - and yes that includes New England - you really don't want to be driving in something that looks like the front bench of your truck wrapped in a glass cartridge. So what are you supposed to do? Leave your truck outside the city and pack all your gear and tools and material in "the cartridge"? Yeah right.

(The speaker did say the emphasis was in city building because apparently cities are where the cool things happen, or more accurately most of the population is supposed to be in cities. When I go to Paris I am amazed by the crazy illegal spots certain residents leave their Smart cars. But you can live and work in Paris without ever leaving the city or needing a car. That is not a situation you encounter too often in the US. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to investigate new frameworks that would be relevant to a broader subset of the US population, although the speaker, to his credit, did emphasize that this was a new model of high-density urban living designed with Kendall Square in mind, and did not pretend this would be applicable everywhere. But it seems like a lot of effort expanded for something just for Kendall Square.)

While the speaker mentioned Hamburg in Germany plans to be car-free by 2024 and Europe is so much more forward on those matters than the US, Europe also has a very different population density than the US. When I first came to America (which meant in my case coming to Cambridge, MA) I thought it was ridiculous to let 16-year-olds drive cars instead of having them wait until they turn 18 and are presumably a bit more mature. But an American friend of mine pointed out that Americans need cars to get around in ways that Europeans do not. It's more complicated than not having public transportation. In some parts of the country it's really not efficient to have a good network of buses.

You can read more about this project here, here and here.

I wonder why having more (energy-efficient) shared rides wouldn't work, similar to Google buses in San Francisco, but not for a single company. For instance, all the companies in Kendall Square could get together and finance a system of buses for their workers. With that level of scale (tens of thousands of people work in the area, according to the speaker), you should be able to finance the scheme effectively. It will look less futuristic than glass cartridges but it might actually work.

Interesting projects from the MIT Mobile Experience Lab

Lots of interesting things are going on at the MIT Mobile Experience Lab at the moment. Here are a few projects that I found particularly interesting. You might notice a common thread!

  • Marriott Six Degrees: this is about redesigning the experience of the business traveller in the hotel lobby using LinkedIn information, to show how various Six Degrees users are connected and help them make new connections. The webpage has very insightful videos of an effort that positions Marriott as one of the most innovative thinkers in the hospitality sphere. You may also want to read this article in the Boston Globe or watch the video below.
  • Rethinking the MBTA Ridership Experience.
  • Mobile Applications for Tradeshows.

If you've attended TEDx conferences, you might have noticed how difficult it is to meaningfully connect with other attendees, although everybody is eager to listen to the speakers (of variable quality) and presumably shares tastes in technology, education or design. You might chat with your neighbor during the break, but you never know who else you might have connected with if you had sat somewhere else in the auditorium. TED or TEDx conferences have high ambitions about changing the world, but remain one-directional exchanges of information where (for some TEDx conferences I've attended) the organizers seem more eager to leverage the TEDx name for their own interests than to deliver a first-rate experience for attendees. The conference of the future, whether trade show or TEDx type (or...), absolutely should foster more multi-directional connections, where speakers share information with attendees but attendees also get to connect with each other. Now, you only need to have been once on a mailing list that some users furiously decided they wanted to be removed from (users who, in spite of seeing that replying to all "unsubscribe" only led to mass spamming, kept doing the same thing that annoyed them so much in others), to realize such novel mobile tools might need to focus only on the more sophisticated part of the user base at the moment. Nonetheless, a different set of tools are sorely needed so that people can make more meaningful professional connections when they attend workshops and conferences. I'll follow with interest what happens.

You can read about more projects here. Also check out the Mobile Experience Lab's portfolio book.

Exhibit A of underwhelming design: the "new" Google Maps

(Update: for a peek into the DDI2014 conference, check out my previous post on Design vs Innovation.)

With all that talk by very successful multimedia designers and other creative types making jibes at big companies during DDI2014, it is easy to forget that sometimes, such designers (maybe not the ones at the conference, but at least their colleagues) can fall flat on their face quite spectacularly. Case in point: the "new" Google Maps, although it is not so new anymore. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to remove the navigation button that lets you explore the surroundings by yourself, or just check the name of a nearby street that doesn't appear in the corner of the map you're looking at? Checking the name of nearby streets can be useful when you're driving so that you know to get ready for a turn. (And yes people can use GPS, but sometimes the GPS doesn't give you the route you want to take, for instance if you want to take a scenic route or avoid a toll highway.) Exploring stores on side streets if you plan to be walking through the neighborhood doesn't seem like such an outlandish idea either. Isn't the first rule of design to ask users how they use the map? Because I have a hard time imagining I'm the only one who wants to be able to get information from the map besides the route that Big Brother Google has helped me pick (even if I get to adjust it). 

At a more conceptual level, I thing today's online maps are really terrible, given what the web allows us to do. For instance, one could imagine multiple layers on a map, color-coded to show restaurants or hotels or coffee shops or residences. (By that I mean that the whole building would be color-coded.) Even better: you could use the information that businesses put on Google Maps to tell users (or provide an option for the users to see if they so wish) which businesses are still open at a certain time and give an idea of whether the area is deserted or full of activity. It'd be good to get such information for pedestrians and not just car traffic. 

On one hand, Google Maps and Mapquest are free services, so there is only so much users should ask of them. On the other hand, since their revenue management philosophy relies on advertisement, maybe the loss of the navigation button on Google Maps is associated with a desire to gather more actionable information about users' searches - if I use the navigation button to look around, Google won't know what exactly I'm looking at. If I use the "search nearby" function, Google knows what I'm interested in and what link I ultimately click on. 

In the end, you can't wish for Google Maps to look more like Paula Scher's iconic, colorful maps. That just wouldn't be practical; however, there has to be better ways to visually convey information than what Google Maps or Mapquest have been doing. I like some of the things the folks at Google Creative Lab have been doing, but not with respect to maps. (To be honest, their contribution vs the contribution of Google's engineering team isn't completely clear to me. Maybe all the blame should rely on the engineers.)

If Google is to remain a symbol of tech-driven creative energy, it might want to step up its game a little. There hasn't been much creative in the way they have handled maps or even email. (For instance, visualization tools to sift through and organize email should be a lot stronger. Today's email appears in long vertical lists on the screen and is classified using text labels. If you look for an email and don't remember exactly the words in the email or the date, you have to go through long email chains to find what you're looking for - which in my case, is often an attachment someone sent me without using a descriptive title. I wish there was a "notes" function on Gmail, but there is not. In this day and age, you should for instance have visualization tools showing you the email exchanges you've had with a given person over a period of time and the topic of those exchanges with little snippets of the email containing the key words and icons showing you which documents had been attached to which email. I also think there should be, for Gmail, something to be gained from the oft-maligned Google+ in the way that emails vs posts are displayed in the composition window, making email composition a lot more visual than text-driven. Or at least an option to better visualize previous emails in a chain while you are composing your answer.)

I'm not saying it should be free. I like Gmail - it is far superior to any webmail service I've used. I understand we are already lucky to have "free" services like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail that shift the revenue-making part of the equation onto advertisers. Maybe one day Apple will develop a webmail type of service that it can bundle into the pricing of its computers. (Actually, that would be a great idea, although I'm not sure that it wouldn't be a distraction for them from their core products.) I'm just saying, if you want to brand yourself as a tech-creative pioneer, you've got to make sure you can deliver in terms not only of technology but also creativity for the products you put in the marketplace. Maybe that's not Google's goal: it is first and foremost a technology company. But then one has to wonder what the folks at Google Creative Lab would have been capable of doing if they'd been at a company that valued design and creativity a little more.

Design vs innovation

I went to MIT Media Lab's Design-Driven Innovation (DDI) conference where, among other things, five teams of students presented a product they created during a weekend-long hackathon (there were 11 teams, but only 5 were selected to present at the conference). Among the 5, there was 1 that attempted to solve a pressing public-safety issue by creating a helmet that would be useful not only once you have an accident by protecting your head from a fall, but beforehand by incorporating lights that would blink if you are going to turn (activated by the blink of an eye) or decelerate. I think there might also be a series of lights that could be turned on at night. The idea is to help motorists better understand what bicyclists are doing so that they can avoid a crash. The students had a working prototype that they filmed working correctly on the MIT campus. They say the cost of materials was about $80 per helmet, while according to their presentation, the cost resulting from bicycle accidents in Massachusetts is said to be $4 billion a year. Perhaps someone else has thought about this before, and there would be then be a need for the student team to make a business case for their idea and justify why their product would be more successful than whatever currently exists in the marketplace.

The other teams had products that weren't overly useful and some presentations were stronger than others but their prototypes worked and they made good cases for their little innovation. The last team created a device that would allow users to create and broadcast their own online radio station; others would notice part of the device in their front pocket with the channel number on it and would then be able to listen to the channel. They dubbed their concept "social listening" and, having a MBA student in the audience, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they were the only ones who had secured a webpage and a Twitter name (@WaavyIsComing named after their product Waavy). You can really tell when a MBA student is part of the group and when there is not: MBA students make sure interested folks can stay in touch somehow. No doubt it will positively affect the product's chance of seeing commercialization.

At the end of the five presentations I was sure that the bike-helmet team (I don't want to give their name in case someone else then grabs the domain name instead of them) was head and shoulders above the others. It simply taps into a much more important collective story. You may not bike but if you drive you've probably seen bicyclists around and maybe worried about how to safely pass them or perhaps witnessed near-misses between bicycles and cars. The safety of bicyclists is simply a bigger story, especially in conjunction with the sustainability movement and the rise in bicycle accidents.

In the end, the helmet team did win second place and a check for $2,000, but judges picked for first place ($3,000) a product where the soles of people's shoes light up neon pink or neon green or neon blue based on some interface on your phone when you are looking for your friend or your own shows light up neon blue and that, if you're lucky, tells you something about what is underground (although obviously the data would need to be available and formatted in a usable way to be incorporated on the smartphone, and that part seemed more wishful thinking than impending reality). And the name they picked for it was just cheesy, but it went well with the whole purpose of the product.

Now, I'm not competent to judge design itself, but if you think of the bigger picture, for design to be taken seriously, it is perhaps not the best-advised move to pick for first place a product that made people laugh because of its ridiculousness and the vacuity of its purpose, no matter how well done it was (LED lights in 3 colors!), instead of the product that had an important public-safety purpose. The need the helmet product solved is just far more critical for society. If the sole of your friend's shoe fails to light up when you look for her, you can call her and ask where she is. If you don't build better helmets, some people's lives will be tragically cut short. 

Now, this was not a business competition, and I'm sure the judges had good design-based reasons to pick the winners they did. And people who make public-health prototypes shouldn't be given a free pass just because they work on an important problem and the other teams are not. (In this case, the prototype was working and seemed complex enough.) I wouldn't feel so strongly about the whole thing if the prototype of the team that had received first place actually did something interesting - the team that won third place, for instance, created a harness where LED lights light up depending on whether you put your weight on your left or right leg, to help ballroom dance students understand how dance moves are created. Not life-changing, certainly, but interesting enough. At least you learn something from watching the lights. But the need the first-place product solved was so tiny (nonexistent?) as to be ludicrous, I find.

For design to be taken seriously as a discipline central to innovation, it might need to be a bit more conscious of the image it projects through the products and prototypes it rewards. You have to be incredibly myopic and focused on your little part of the picture to miss the bigger point. You'd expect the design world, from all places, to know that image is important.