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Archive for September, 2007

The New Creative Enterprise

Thursday, September 27th, 2007


An ongoing area of interest for me is how we can innovate in the guidance and leadership of a creative enterprise, and thus sustain successful operations. This is centered around the challenges facing most professional services in the creative arena, something that it would seem all are struggling with, at least at some level. The core of this is the commodification of creative work, whether that be advertising, architecture or graphic design. Many firms have allowed themselves to become factories, to become production houses. In some ways, this is the result of our own devaluing of our efforts. In others, it is born out of an entirely different decision-making process that has been progressively gaining ground with the clients for creative services… the prevalence of value assignment based on time worked and not on value created.

I came across an article that was very insightful in relation to these realities by Avi Dan in It succinctly lays it all out. His article is leveled squarely at advertising agencies, and why so many are facing the music as their business model is yanked out from under them. As I read his article I could not help but see strong similarities to the realities we face in architecture, and those I experienced in other creative businesses. Avi outlines five key areas that agencies, and by extension most creative enterprise, need to investigate:

    Should be tied to value creation and not based solely on labor. Clients and creative firms need to work out a fairer compensation scheme recognizing the value of intellectual capital.
    Smart creative organizations should evolve into creative portals, outsourcing external creative talent in areas such as production, as well as in logistical operations.
    Firms need to explore ways to monetize new areas of involvement such as licensing, e-commerce applications and even the work itself.
    Creative enterprise must recognize that in a web-based world that moves at warp speed, speed itself is a strategic asset and those that can help their clients with speed-to-market executions will have an advantage.
    The firm model should recognize that social responsibility is at the core of the modern firm, hand in hand with its financial accountability to shareholders, and is essential for recruiting top talent.

Of special note are the ideas around outsourcing and revenue streams. There is a controlling mindset in most creative firms that they must own all waypoints in the project process. I cannot help but ask “why?” Outsourcing is a tremendous opportunity to not only diversify your talent, but to allow you to focus on what you are truly good at… and seek support from partners who are better at the other project roles than your team may be. Additionally, seeking complimentary and supplemental revenue streams is enormous. As creative businesses we are perpetually innovating with respect to our client’s businesses. Why is it that we cannot bring this same approach, this innovation, to benefit our own businesses? Over the course of a year there will be any number of revenue opportunities available to a firm that are outside of their traditional business model, but because of that model these ideas will make it scarcely farther than the whiteboard.

All of this to say, many companies face an environment of intense change and competition. Those that get it are focused on changing with the environment in which they operate. Some are changing fast, with a cultural premium on innovation and knowledge in the value created by their own people. Those that do not are not going to last. I feel it is that simple.

iRobot Debuts Telepresence Robot, The Virtual Office Flourishes

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

iRobot Connectr

Though you may mistake the image above to be that of a bedpan of the future, it is in fact a telepresence robot from the consumer robotics company, . It is called the “,” and described by iRobot as a “virtual visiting robot.” Not long ago we investigated the homegrown telepresence robot IvanAnywhere, and the potential for that technology in the workplace. IvanAnywhere was created in a garage, so to speak, by inspired and creative tinkerers. iRobot now takes the concept of telepresence to an entirely new level, by mass producing the technology, and making it incredibly accessible. This is completely in alignment with their mission of creating the “robot home,” but I think that is an incredibly limiting way to review this technology as a device such as ConnectR has potential in a diversity of non-home applications. ConnectR allows for a virtual presence by enabling control of the robot via WiFi. It utilizes live video and audio with the built in camera that can zoom into a high resolution mode for reading text. Remarkable. You can also communicate and speak to your audience through ConnectR, and even display your mood by controlling an LED light.

All of that may sound unimpressive, but it is actually quite amazing. You will be able to purchase a telepresence robot (it launches in 2008) off the shelf of your local robot store and then be in two places at once. I am excited to see creative uses of this technology in the workplace, and guarantee that we will see a proliferation of telecommuters now leveraging telepresence. When ConnectR launches next year it is expected to sell for $499. There are innumerable times that I have dreamed of this technology.


Reinvestigating The Wine Bottle

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

While scanning the shelves of our local wine store, I found one bottle distinct among the hundreds of others. It is the , pictured below, and the bottle form is refreshingly different.

Voga Italia wine bottle

Contrasted against the typical wine bottle, it looks modern, functional, and ultimately pretty cool. I imagine that alone has been enough for this wine to meet with some success in the marketplace. Admittedly, I am a sucker for cool packaging… I think our entire culture is, but the question going through my mind is why more wineries are not experimenting with the packaging of their product. The shelves of your wine shop are essentially dominated by a form factor that has been largely unchanged for hundreds of years. This shape can be traced back to around 300CE. In 1867 earthenware bottle shaped were discovered in a Roman sarcophagus dating to 325CE. So, the wine bottles on our shelves today are marginally improved versions of packaging created nearly 2000 years ago. Now that’s some serious design longevity. Is it because the wine bottle is the perfect shape in which to store and ship wine? Is it simply an unchallenged convention? Is is a cost issue?

I imagine that at some level the answer to all three of those questions is believed to be “yes.” But is it really? There is a terrifically strong argument that as these bottles compete on the shelves for the attention of the wine buyer that anything they can do to stand out, to be different, is going to be an advantage. This strategy has played out almost comically on our grocery store and discount department store shelves. Look at ketchup or laundry detergent. Products packaged well, sell well. Products that are packaged expertly have the potential to lead their categories. Naturally, to sustain sales the product must also deliver on consumer expectations for quality and performance. Now, we love wine and are constantly shopping for new experiences. It is stunning to me that as we scan the bottles of Califonia Syrah, Burgundy Pinot Noir, Loire Valley Sancerre, and Italian Barrolo we are essentially looking at the same bottle. There may be minor variations in the color and tint of the glass. There may be subtle differences in the glass thickness, in the punt, or the neck length, but essentially… it’s the same damn bottle. Now, some of this is determined by the governing bodies of the regions in which the grapes are grown and these wines are made, like the in France. But plenty of winemakers in all governed regions defy convention and the laws of the governing bodies (and their arcane rules) to do things their own way, and they do that successfully. At least one winemaker understands the value of differentiation, and their packaging (incredibly similar to that used for Voss water) was enough to get us to buy a bottle and try it… and had it been in a typical Pinot Grigio bottle we would have kept on walking. As it turned out, the wine was not bad. It was a nice summer, good value, patio sitting, crisp white wine. For the money, and with the packaging figure in, it over-delivered on the experience.

I state the obvious when I say that wine bottle shape has much to do with tradition, but it is a package that is desperate for creative thinking and innovation. The storage issue alone demands that the bottle shape be revisited. Add to that opportunities for limiting packaging waste, shipping in smaller boxes, and improved durability and there are compelling reasons to think differently about the wine bottle.

Smart Dusted

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

smart dust 2

In 1995 published This book is excellent and still, twelve years later, prescient. It presaged, in an eerily descriptive and accurate manner, many of the technologies that are either commonplace today or under intense research and development with hopes of eventually becoming commonplace. Specifically, Stephenson elaborated on the ubiquitousness of nanotechnology, expressed as a wide variety of miniature, microscopic robots and machines that fulfill an incredible diversity of uses… to the extent that some cities have entire impenetrable defensive grid “immune systems” comprised of networked nanomachines that can defend against air pollution, air borne viruses, and criminals. This is only one of many impressive aspects of the story, but it should be noted how thoroughly Stephenson intertwined nanotechnology with our own existence. In 1995 this was incredible, other worldly, and seemingly unreachable. Actually, not so unreachable. Nanotechnology would work its way onto the evening news and into our newspapers before the year 2000. Today, it is a major technological force that receives funding largesse, and for some is a panacea.

About the same time that the concept of nanotechnology was going mainstream, researchers were working on the idea of In 1999, wrote of smart dust:

“It relies on the convergence of three technologies: digital circuitry, laser-driven wireless communications, and something called MEMS (Micro ElectroMechanical Systems) to pack enough equipment into a space no more than one or two cubic millimeters in size.”

The concept of smart dust was conceived by researchers and of UC Berkeley. Both are pioneers of ubiquitous computing and the development of networked motes, or small sensor driven and task linked robotic devices. In 2000, Pister wrote of this technology:

“In 2010 everything you own that is worth more than a few dollars will know that it’s yours, and you’ll be able to find it whenever you want it. Stealing cars, furniture, stereos, or other valuables will be unusual, because any of your valuables that leave your house will check in on their way out the door, and scream like a troll’s magic purse if removed without permission (they may scream at 2.4 GHz rather than in audio).”

Beyond ensuring that your stuff stays your stuff, this technology has unreal potential. For medical technologies alone, smart dust could create a revolution. Then, there are the military and security applications (enter Neal Stephenson). The internet has clearly demonstrated the power of the network, virtually. Smart dust has the potential to bring this same power of connection into a physical manifestation, ideally in a manner that is benevolent and not entirely defined by surveillance. Applications of this technology are already being used, albeit still by motes and not yet on a nanoscale… but if we have learned anything over the past 20 years it is that miniaturization can happen very, very quickly. You will find successful use of networked motes being used in applications like monitoring the micro climates in wine vineyards and for seismic monitoring along fault lines. Seems innocuous, but back in 1999 Pister himself seemed excited, when quoted by James Flint in a piece for , saying that…

“Considering the military arena, Smart Dust may be deployed for stealthy monitoring of a hostile environment, e.g. for verification of treaty compliance. [With] acoustic vibration or magnetic field sensors [it] could detect the passage of vehicles … [it] could be used for perimeter surveilliance, or to detect the presence of chemical or biological agents on the battlefield.”

Julius Shulman

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

Julius Schulman

There is an excellent article about in the latest issue of . I was familiar with his work, but really knew very little about the man. The article is a terrific primer on Shulman who, at nearly 97 years old, has just had published a three-volume set of over 400 images of architectural projects shot over his 70 year career. The set, from , is entitled Shulman began shooting modern architecture in 1936 when he photographed a house. Over the next few decades his client list would read like a who’s who of modern architecture and design. He photographed the work of my favorites, like Neutra, , and Rudolf Schindler.

I plan to own these books. Soon. Here’s a choice quote from the article:

“We’ve always had green – those of us that are concerned with the environment. So why should we suddenly discover that green is good?”

Julius Shulman

Robots: They Are Proliferating. Quickly.

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

papero - childcare robot

Anybody who has read Isaac Asimov’s 1950 collection of short stories is going to immediately understand where I am going with this post. In that collection was the short story “Runaround,” originally written in 1942, that provided some unbelievable foreshadowing to our present reality. By way of review, the biggest take-away from that story was the immutable :

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to be harmed.

2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being, except where those orders come into conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as this does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In 1950 Asimov anticipated an imminent dilemma now facing humanity. Benefiting from the incredible advances made in a complicated mix of technologies, robotics has exploded with innovations and advances in the last five years. Historically, robotics has focused on industrial automation tasks, but advances in a diversity of technologies (such as WiFi, sensor arrays, optics, and artificial intelligence precursors) are leading us to new and surreal opportunities… such as human service platforms©. As a result of this, robot populations have exploded. Exponentially. Going back to a NYT’s piece in 1984 titled none of us should be surprised by this. The article states (IN 1984!):

“The population of robots in the United States is growing by 30 percent a year, compared to a human population growth rate of only 2 percent annually, according to the World Future Society. The society said there will be 35,000 robots in the United States by 1990.”

So we have Asimov in 1942 eloquently providing a cautious warning of our technological future, and in 1984 we are already seeing predictions of robot population growth outpacing humans in the United States by a factor of 15 times. Believe me, it is more now and at the rate robot populations are increasing we face a reality where there will be more of them than there are of us most probably in my lifetime. That’s interesting to think about. I am not going to waste your time with a parade of lines from science fiction movies or 1960’s television. I am going to lay out some facts regarding robot populations, and projections, that definitely gave me pause… and cause for concern. This in spite of the fact that I am fascinated by robots and optimistic about their relationship with us.

Japan is the best place to start. Japanese companies are far and away the fastest innovators and hardest drivers of robotics technologies. This is partly driven by the reality that their population is shrinking, facing a rapid increase in the elderly and a depleted younger generation not sufficient to replace them in the workforce. The current hope is that robots will in labor force replacement. Back in 410,000 of the world’s 720,000 working robots (around 57%) were in Japan. That is just the “working” robots. The worldwide general robotic population in 2003 was well in excess of 1,000,000. Today, the number of robots in Japan is closer to 40% of the global population, but only because the rest of the world is racing to keep pace. Robotics was, and continues to be, a priority long-term economic strength for the Japanese. You could say that they are the vanguard. During 2003, Honda alone spent in excess of $100 million just to develop the humanoid robot the goal not being to sell Asimo as a consumer product, but to focus technologies into a prototype to test capabilities, to test limits… and filter them into subsequent products and begin refining for later iterations. A proof of concept for the inception of an intelligent service robotics platform. By 2010 it is anticipated that intelligent service robotics will be a market in excess of $30 billion for Japan. In 2005, it was just over $2 billion. That is a growth market. That is momentum.

This is where concern enters the picture. Robotics are hot everywhere, but Japan is the hot engine at the moment. That engine is posting exponential growth in the market, and paradigmatic shifts in the technologies. There is really no way that we can accurately project where we will be in 2010, 2015 or 2020 both in terms of technological development and in terms of overall robotic populations. If you spend any time researching current robot populations you will be hard pressed to yield any relevant information after 2005. I believe this is because things are happening so quickly. We are definitely seeing this with the deployment of military robotic technologies by the U.S. military. In 2000 robotics were hardly on the agenda at the Pentagon, now it commands enormous R&D budgets and sits at the top of yearly acquisition priorities (in the thousands of robots) for every branch of the military. In 2002 the Pentagon was still debating the virtues of . But I digress. In Japan alone you have a nation that is aligning their future with the future of robots. On the one hand, that is truly and genuinely aimed at serving the needs of humanity. On the other, it is what seems to be a rush into a technological arena that is yet undefined, and very much uncharted territory. This brings us back to Asimov’s three laws, which seem almost trite, but are actually of increasing importance as we set about building this semi-autonomous, potentially fully, or even quasi-autonomous workforce. As researchers expend greater effort trying to create robots that develop an autonomous approach to space, time and action we should also expend greater effort understanding what the possible implications of this may mean for humanity. Both good and bad. I am not being alarmist, but advocate for serious consideration by our societies around these issues. Think back to 1990. Think back to 2000. Could you have ever anticipated that we would be facing the situations we face today as they relate to technology, geo-politics, religion and the environment? We face similarly asymmetrical unknowns now, but with implications intensified by our own progress.

So… How Does Apple Do It?

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Bite this Apple

had a great post yesterday that speculates, and probably very accurately, on the secrets to the sustained success of Apple in the fiercely competitive consumer electronics category. There is no denying that Apple has honed an approach to engaging the consumer that no other company can claim. Beyond creating loyal customers, Apple creates passionate adherents. Why? How? The article breaks it down into eight secrets:

Secret 1 – Engineering supports design — no exceptions

Typically, design enters the strategic momentum behind an idea at precisely the wrong time, and that is once the idea has been defined by real world constraints in the wrong direction… from the concept to the audience. Success comes out of designing from the audience to the concept. Apple understands that the interaction is the design, and that designers need to drive the strategy for an idea.

Secret 2 – Fewer is better

Apple clearly understands the dangers of product oversegmentation. They work to create the fewest number of products with the broadest possible appeal. This works incredibly well.

Secret 3 – The experience is the product

See Secret 1. But even beyond crafting the experience of using their products, Apple has integrated the experience of interacting with their packaging, and added drama to the unboxing of a new product. are dedicated to this phenomenon alone, and it takes product fetishism to an entirely new level. While competitors look at packaging as necessary, Apple sees it as another incredible opportunity to connect with their audience. This extends to the physical environment of the Apple Stores, and to the Apple website. The experience is consistent.

Secret 4 – The product is the product

As companies become successful, they generally become bigger. At some point, feeding the machine becomes the product that the executives are selling. Look at Microsoft as an example. Apple maintains a relentless focus on their products, on what they do, and everything else is secondary and useless to their audience.

Secret 5 – You can’t please everyone, so please people with good taste

I cannot say this any better… from the post:

“Targeting the low end cheapens the brand. Going after the ‘average’ consumer shrinks margins. Only the high end creates the pixie-dust intangible quality of buzz, brand affinity and, ultimately, brand loyalty, which can be converted into higher margins and higher sales.”

Secret 6 – Leave the past behind

You are either a company focused on innovation and invention, or on supporting legacy ideas, systems and technologies. You cannot do both and keep your customers.

Secret 7 – Product names are important. Really important

A name supports the identity, which supports the overall brand. It gives people something immediate to identify with, something to reference. It is recognizable. A series of letters and numbers is confusing, not memorable, and not user friendly.

Secret 8 – Group affiliation is the driver

This is the biggest, baddest secret of the eight. Basically, people want to belong and they want to identify with things that make them feel secure, or in some cases superior. Apple has created this by maintaining a cohesive “fan-base” around their products and technologies. I pointed this out in my post on Steve Jobs… but how many company CEO’s launch their products to the world? How many do it 2-3 times per year? How many CEO’s command standing-room-only attendance at every event announcing these new products?

The answer is easy… One company. One CEO.

The really compelling thing is how many of these concepts, these secrets, translate directly to just about any creative enterprise, and how concrete an example and reminder this is for all of us. I especially take to heart Secret 5, about pleasing people with good taste. I take this to mean choose your customers, the audience for what you do, and choose them very carefully. Say no to the business that does not move your company forward that you are not passionate about doing. It is better to restructure your company around a solid vision, and around the customers you want to serve than to compromise. This helps you to break the commodification cycle that currently plagues so many professional services creative companies.

Appreciating of The Link Love

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Yours truly was referenced at as a blog worthy of checking out. I have enjoyed that blog for a very, very long time and greatly appreciate the mention. Note that architechnophilia has been in the schneiderism blogroll (over there, in the right column) from our very inception. I subscribe to their RSS feed and have a 100% hit rate for viewing posts. It’s comprehensive. It’s good.

We Can Get There From Here

Monday, September 17th, 2007

The Moon

I spent Sunday morning enjoying a great cup of coffee, The Clash, the attention of my wife and baby daughter, and thinking about why we do not have a permanent research base on the moon. As a self-appointed critic of the United States space program, I feel compelled to investigate. Given my recent post on the hard realities of a manned mission to Mars, and knowing that several nations are directing their space programs to the moon, you would think that the moon would have been on NASA’s shortlist these last thirty years. I mean… WE’VE ALREADY BEEN THERE. A few times. The reality is, the moon has not been on the list at all, at least not in a meaningful and substantive way, and our last manned visit to the moon was December 7, 1972. That was the mission of Apollo 17, the last of the six manned (beginning with Apollo 11 in 1969) and the end of a nearly 10 year concerted effort to put American astronauts on the moon. We put American astronauts on the moon. In 1969.

There is movement to reactivate the moon program as, back in 2004, committed us to a lunar landing no later than 2020. There is also talk at NASA regarding the creation of a permanent moon base. Money for initiating the moon program was cut out of NASA’s budget in 2006, but there is still a drive. The fact that Russia, India and China all have active moon programs, and that just recently launched its first moon probe successfully is re-motivating Washington to put the moon back on the docket. China is committed to having a , less than 17 years from now. History has a way of repeating itself, and this is no more true than in the U.S. space program. The working model for the potential American moon program (when it gets re-funded), and for the creation of the base, is our very own 1960’s moon program. The thinking, I suppose, is that if it worked back then it should work for us again. The only problem is that most of the scientists and researchers that made that moon program possible are dead. There is concern that we no longer have the knowledge and expertise necessary to get to the moon successfully and that technology alone cannot make up this deficiency. There is also concern that recreating that knowledge and research will be too expensive. The question begs asking… having already been to the moon several times, and being the first to get there, how do we find ourselves again in a race to the moon? This time the technological playing field is much more flat. That, and there is more than one economic superpower in the race.

During my investigation into the moon program I took the time to actually look at . They have the equivalent for . There is something amazing about being able to explore the surface of the moon and Mars from the comfort of your living room. I cannot help but feel that tools like these will inspire a whole new generation of scientists, researchers and astronauts. After a thirty year hiatus from not really doing anything beyond repetitive low Earth orbital visits via the Space Shuttle, we need a whole new generation to kick our space program into gear.

Some moon facts to jog your memories of sixth grade solar system studies:

  • - The moon is an average of 238,855 miles from Earth
  • - A day on the moon lasts 27.3 Earth days
  • - A lunar year also lasts 27.3 Earth days
  • - That is because the orbital period is equal to the rotation period
  • - Surface temperatures range from -387° F to 253° F, from the dark side to the light side

NASA’s plans for the next twenty years is to play out something like this:

  • - 2008/9 complete the Orion next generation spacecraft
  • - 2008/9 initiate robotic spacecraft missions to explore the moon
  • - 2010 the International Space Station is completed
  • - 2010 the Space Shuttle is finally retired, it will have been in service nearly 30 years
  • - 2014 first manned moon mission by NASA since 1972 (42 years)

“Dust… Can Be Eliminated”

Friday, September 14th, 2007

McLaren Mercedes SLR

There is a terrific article in about and his new “office” (pictured above). Ron leads … the designers and builders of incredibly high performance road and race cars. Most notably, McLaren has long been involved in Formula One racing, historically building and sponsoring (if not outright leading) some incredible winning campaigns. Think in the late 90’s or so. McLaren is also behind the BMW V12 powered roadgoing supercar of the mid-90’s that made my jaw hit the floor before I knew any better. It was hand-built by McLaren and sold to very wealthy people for around $1m.

But I digress, and though Ron Dennis is all kinds of cool, and although McLaren is an incredible design/engineering/R+D force in the world of high performance automobiles, this post is actually about workplace design. The article in Motortrend does an excellent job documenting, describing and exploring the new McLaren Technology Center designed by the starchitect , the same knighted gentleman doing surreal projects all over the UAE and Dubai.

The new center is enormous, definitive in its design, and is a hub of quiet and focused activity for the 1000 staff that work there creating and developing high-performance vehicles. It is technically state of the art, and actually looks more like the HQ of NASA… or at least what NASA’s HQ should look like in movies. The environment created by Sir Norman Foster for McLaren is pure and unadulterated Ron Dennis. Ron is very much a top-down leader, and makes no apologies for this. In fact, he seems to revel in his level of control and influence over his organization. The design of this environment was not about focus groups and it was not about surveying employees. It was about listening to exactly what Ron wanted, analyzing that, and turning it into architecture. Here is a choice quote from the author of the article in Motortrend:

“Backwoods philosopher Henry David Thoreau warned we should ‘beware of any enterprise requiring new clothes.’ Dennis now has one of the biggest sets of new clothes of them all, a gleaming monument to the client’s uncompromising obsession and the architect’s near-perfect ability to deliver it. Architecturally speaking, it’s what you should expect when one of the world’s most technically bonkers architects is given a huge budget and a sympathetic brief. And it’s startling. But it’s clearly more than is strictly necessary to build Formula 1 cars.”

It goes on to state that the goal was to give the employees the absolute best environment within which to do their work. I get that, but looking at the photographs, and contrasting that with the for the assembly of their Phaeton luxury car in Dresden, seen below, you cannot help but feel the concept of “the best environment” has very different manifestations.

Phaeton assembly line

I mean this in the most objective way possible, but where would you rather work? I have spent an inordinant amount of time wrenching on cars, and fast ones at that, and have a love for a clean, well lit and organized garage with everything in its place… but I also crave an environment that I would like to spend time in. This brings us right to the core of issues around involuntary, or non-preferred environments as illuminated by in an earlier post about the Open Plan Work Group, and efforts to move our workplaces to align more closely with the other environments that we prefer, that we engage in voluntarily. The question I would love to ask the engineers and technicians that spend their days (and probably many evenings) in this operating theater environment is “Does it work for you?” Maybe it does, but I sense a chasm between the efforts to recreate the set of the movie Gattaca and provide the best possible environment for your people to toil in.

Do I sound harsh?

This commentary is in no way to imply that I do not think the new facility is cool looking. It is incredibly cool looking. Maybe too cool looking. The goal here, I believe, is not to just create environments that look “cool.” The goal here is to create environments that work, and this means work in relation to the human factors of the people that inhabit the environment. Given this, and when seen through the lens of architectural dynamics, I cannot help but think the McLaren Technology Center harbors enormous liabilities as it relates to human factors… especially when contrasted with the VW facility pictured above. We see this all of the time, where an organization decides to build a new headquarters and an enhanced presence. Inevitably, this comes down to how design is deployed to reflect the culture and brand of the organization… and it seems to stop there. How these environments actually engage the people that make up the organizations seems to not make it onto the agenda, or not until the very end when it is more of an afterthought. There is more time spent on the public face, on materials that are impactful, than on supporting culture and environments that enhance health. Foster’s firm, Foster+Partners, has a workplace consulting group… they must be engaged in these issues, and they may have brought them to the table in their initial design discussions with Ron Dennis. I surmise, though, that Ron’s style precluded anything being entertained that was not within the boundaries of his aesthetic vision, of which he is admittedly obsessive. The headline, “Dust Can Be Eliminated” is a direct quote from Ron Dennis.

One last quote from the article:

“Staff are allowed no personal mementoes on desks. Dennis tried a total ban on food and drink in the workplace because ‘food contaminates.’ There were slight mumbles from the normally docile staff. Water was offered as a concession.”

Check out the slideshows of and , what do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Your Wish Has Been Granted… Workplace Robots

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

telepresence robot

I love it when categories intersect. Like design and astrophysics, or as in this instance… robots and the workplace of the future. It makes for such fertile subject matter.

We’ve all imagined being able to work without physically having to be at work. Different from telecommuting or working from a home office, I mean having a presence at work that is not actually you. I believe that I actually think about this every day. Perhaps you’ve imagined a virtual avatar, or maybe thought about having yourself cloned. Both may be viable options at some point in the future (and Herman Miller is probably already researching both), but a software programmer in Canada has beaten everyone to reality. Ivan Bowman works from home, which is 800 miles from his office. Previously, he telecommuted and would be the disembodied voice sitting on the conference table. In some ways, this worked well, but not having an ability to interact properly with his coworkers, to look them in the eye and see their facial expressions, was making it difficult to understand nuance, and sometimes intent.

Ivan now uses a “telepresence” robot, a creative combination of technologies, that allows him to be present at meetings, engage in discussion, and “move” around the office environment physically. All of this occurs while Ivan sits in his underwear on his couch hundreds of miles of away. The robot, built by co-worker Ian McHardy, is made from a wireless webcam, microphone, flat panel monitor, speakers mounted on an armature at about eye level and attached to a four-wheeled chassis. He controls it from home, and moves the robot about the office almost as if he were there in person. The robot is him. Ivan could be a brain in a jar somewhere, as far as his co-workers are concerned. He can cruise the halls, visit people in their offices, and look people in the eye. Sort of. To date, this solution appears to be working very, very well for all involved… and has brought much attention to Ivan. Actually, it has brought attention to the virtual Ivan, named “IvanAnywhere”.

This robot represents an important direction in the future of work, in the ways we work, and how we interact. Having a dynamic, mobile virtual presence in the workplace can create all sorts of opportunities for both employees and employers. Think about the difficulty in attracting talent in a particular office due to geographical location. That would be a non-issue. Think about the challenges, due to changed immigration laws and regulations, in company’s abilities to retain foreign residents as staff. They can now work from their home country. Think about the efficiencies this could yield in the physical space that makes up the office environments we work in. If even a small number of people work via telepresence robotics there is a savings in the needed square feet for an office space. That alone has benefits to company overhead, energy usage, waste, and pollution. Could this technology actually be categorized as sustainable? I would argue that it can.

Naturally, this all is a long way off, but is it important that an individual at one company took such an interesting and innovative approach to addressing issues that matter in the workplace. That the potential scale of this approach has so many additional benefits is only supporting of our work realities moving more in this direction over time.


The Revolution Will Be Implied

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

ipod touch 2007

Given my previous post regarding Steve Jobs being a rockstar, and anticipating the Apple product launch of last Tuesday, I found myself feeling a little bit underwhelmed after viewing . Yes, he unveiled some very cool technology and functionality housed in typically cool Apple hardware. Yes, millions of people watching found themselves in the consumerism want cycle. Again.

I was underwhelmed for two reasons. The first is that the presentation given by Steve Jobs seemed rough. There were a couple technical glitches and he seemed unsure at times if things were going to work. It just wasn’t as tight as other keynotes I have seen by Steve, and clearly not in the rockstar league I put him in with my post. Sorry about that. The second reason is that what was unveiled had been nearly 100% anticipated by technology bloggers for nearly a year. Very little shown was unexpected. Even the form factor of the devices had been correctly speculated. For me, at least, it created a sense of having already seen it before… even though none of the products presented had been officially acknowledged by Apple until the moment Steve pulled them out of his pocket. There didn’t seen to be any surprises, any “WOW!” Maybe I am jaded, and I probably am, but I wanted more… and so did countless others.

So, I thought about this for a couple of days and in doing so realized I had missed something of huge importance. There WAS a surprise presented by Steve Jobs on Tuesday, and it had enormous WOW factor. It is, in fact, revolutionary for the world of mobile communications. I think most of us missed it as it was incredibly subtle. On Tuesday, Apple announced a partnership with Starbucks whereby customers will be able to buy Starbucks brand music from their iPod or iPhone while enjoying their coffee. At the time I was thinking… “so what?” But I had missed it. This is actually a really big deal, and not because you can now purchase that John Coltrane song playing overhead while sitting in your local neighborhood Starbucks. Here’s the deal:

  • - You are sitting in a Starbucks
  • - Your iPod/iPhone automatically knows this
  • - A Starbucks icon automatically appears on your device interface
  • - Your device syncs to your exact location, in that exact store
  • - You hear the John Coltrane song, you hit the Starbucks button now on your device
  • - The song is already ready to be purchased on your device, with one button click
  • - The entire exercise is seamless and completely location specific and in real time

It’s the last line that is important. Location specific communications. This development could explode the entire mobile communications industry. That Apple cast this accomplishment as more about the convenience of purchasing music at Starbucks, and seemed to play up oddly so this partnership with Starbucks, distracted us from the bigger idea here. It is inspiring that your device becomes integrated with your experience, at that very moment.

All of this means that information is no longer limited to what is on the device, or to accessing a network and actively finding the information you seek. Now, information can be contextual and complimentary to what you are experiencing. It can anticipate your needs based on context. Here are some examples that I came up with:

  • - Access to a building directory and directions to your destination
  • - At the airport, real time access to arrivals and departures
  • - In a hospital, wayfinding assistance, information access and patient support
  • - What is on sale or special at the grocery store, or any store… and a recipe catalog
  • - Information and background on the wines on the shelf of a wineshop
  • - Card catalog access and directions to a specific book in a library
  • - In your car, immediate access to traffic information specific to your route

That was about one minute’s worth of ideas, but you get the picture. Our mobile devices can begin to contextually understand our tasks, and our needs, and efficiently surface supporting information… unprompted. This is integration at a whole new level, and the partnership with Starbucks, believe me, is only the beginning of a revolution of location specific functionality that iPhones and iPods gain to take advantage of with the WiFi networks they join. An implied revolution, at least at this point.

The Economics of Sustainable Building

Friday, September 7th, 2007

Bad Construction

The image above is of a typical big-box style retail construction site. These sites are typically a mess, both in terms of waste and in terms of their impact on the environment.

We’re still surrounded by waste and energy inefficiencies in the building industry, and this is in the face of knowing better. There has been tremendous research into more efficient, less wasteful, environmentally sensitive building techniques and methodologies. These improved techniques are being used, but on a much smaller scale than really needs to be required. This is due, in large part, to the mistaken belief that new and innovative building practicers, those that are better for us and for the environment, are also much more expensive. A few years ago, this was the case, as many of the building technologies were very new and had not yet been properly tested nor had the opportunity to scale for efficient and cost effective implementation. That is no longer the case.

I read a great post on the other day that brought this issue to light, and pointed me to a put out by the (WBCSD).

The report is premised on the reality that people tend to overestimate the true cost of sustainable building methodologies. It bases this premise on an expansive survey of building industry professionals which exposed the still prevalent misconception that the added cost of sustainable construction is as much as 300% higher than reality, equating to as much as 17% above conventional construction. This misconception, and its commonality of belief, is enough to turn developers, contractors, end users, and the public at large away from sustainable options and opportunities in building construction. The kicker, and this really hurts given the consequences, is that added cost of building sustainably is typically less than 5%, and often close to parity with traditional legacy building techniques. How can such a huge, prolific, and pervasive industry be so wrong?

But wait, there’s more. The report also looks at the other side of this equation… at these professional’s perception of the impact of the buildings they construct. The survey found that most tend to misunderstand the environmental impact of legacy building practices and greatly underestimate the greenhouse emissions put out by buildings being constructed. The reality… buildings contribute over 40% of total emissions. Again, how can they be so wrong?

The answer is education and increased awareness. But that is only the start. Industries are powerful, and they fund well-armed lobbies to protect their interests. If the misconception is that sustainable building practices are expensive, that is being communicated to the end-user… who is most likely being held to very tight project cost accountability. The result is the impetus for an incredibly effective lobby to prevent legislation mandating improved efficiencies and lessened impact on the environment in the building industry. Ultimately, the answer is in the rest of us agitating for change, requiring the building industry and end user audience to adopt a sustainable building practices (as seems to have done), and to effectively articulate the importance of this reality to the people we put in office.

Journey To Mars (this is going to take awhile…)

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007


Science fiction, and the planet Mars as a preferred antagonist, maps directly to our ability over the second half of the 20th century to improve our understanding of the neighboring red planet. Things really began to click in 1964. It was then that , sent from Earth to Mars, did a close proximity fly-by of the planet and snapped some photos. Like this one:

Mars surface image via Mariner 4

Really, at the time scientists were not exactly sure what they were going to see. Despite the fact that Mars had been massively researched via telescope from the comfort of Earth, scientists still harbored science fiction induced anxiety about what Mariner might reveal. Old, abandoned and decayed cities? Signs of water? Signs of great alien civilizations? What they saw is pretty much like the image above, and though without the excitement of alien civilization, nonetheless exciting for the Mariner 4 mission team. Granted, space agencies ( and ) are working overtime to establish that Mars did, in fact, once support life and to find some sort of fossil evidence of this Martian life form. The Chinese and Japanese are getting into the Mars game, with rumors that India and its fledgling space program are as well. Russia wants to get back into Mars exploration after its success in the 1970’s. This is not what I am talking about, though. We will continue to send a proliferation of unmanned probes to explore Mars, but we are at an important jumping off point in regards to our neighboring red planet. Since 1964 there have been 16 successful unmanned missions (and 23 failed missions) to Mars. NASA has a to Mars in the offing and scheduled for sometime in the range of 2015-2020… budgets permitting. We are closing in on commercial space flight with the advent of the and Richard Branson’s partnership with Burt Rutan for . There is going to be a space hotel for the families of the astronauts on the International Space Station to stay at when they are in town, just kidding… but there is talk of a space hotel. All of this activity, and while it may not have much directly to do with Mars, it is critical. This is because we are increasing our presence and access to orbit around Earth. Easy access to orbit means that the development of an orbital launch position for Mars voyages could come together relatively quickly. Orbital launch positions greatly ease the launch requirements for getting to Mars. Taking off from Earth’s surface is essentially cost prohibitive for such a mission. Launching from orbit is like sending off a cruise ship, so to speak.

So about the time most of us are getting real serious about retirement, humanity will be getting real serious about really visiting Mars. Conservatively, by the time humans are walking on the surface of Mars some sixty years will have passed since Mariner 4 did the first fly by in Mars orbit. Sixty years. We’re talking somewhere around 2025, hopefully sooner… like the 2015-2020 prescribed by President Bush. The effort to send a manned flight to Mars will have spanned my entire life. I guess it already has. Here is some interesting information about that first manned flight to Mars:

- Scientists estimate a one-way transit time to be in the range of 190-225 days

- Planning is for a surface mission of 30-90 days, putting the round-trip at 410-610 days

- For a crew of five astronauts for this duration 6,150-9150 meals will be required

- Food may be sent ahead and pre-positioned on Mars for the return trip

- What if they cannot find it?

- Assuming 1 gallon of water/astronaut per day yields needs of 2050-3050 gallons of water

- Water sources will have to be supplemented by water purification and condensation capture

- There is concern about the dust on the surface of Mars damaging the landing craft

- To enhance communications, they may boost feeds via satellites around Mars and Earth

- As many as 7 supporting unmanned flights may be necessary in advance of the manned mission

- The astronauts will most likely not have the chance to visit any of the robotic rovers already there

- Rough cost estimates put the price of the manned mission around $10-15 billion


Of Metamaterial and Invisibility

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007


A post over at got me thinking about nanotechnology, and how researchers and scientists are experimenting with nanofactories that build nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes, and then assemble those nanotubes into larger nanostructures. Think about the possibilities for material science utilizing nanotechnology. Structures that assemble themselves from unseen particles. Your home could assemble itself wherever you need it. You would never need to stay at a hotel again… or own land.

I started looking into research being done with nanomaterials, but became sidetracked by . Metamaterial is a material that gains its properties from its structure rather than directly from its composition. The term was coined by Rodger M. Walser of the University of Texas at Austin in 1999, and metamaterials were defined by him in 2002 as follows:

“macroscopic composites having a manmade, three-dimensional, periodic cellular architecture designed to produce an optimized combination, not available in nature, of two or more responses to specific excitation.”

Unique, customizable, producible, controllable materials based on periodic elements. Essentially, these unique materials are special, and of special importance in electromagnetism, communications and optics – three key areas with a number of promising technology applications. For optical applications alone there are an enormous number of potential uses for metamaterials… like laser guidance and modulation and high capacity directional lenses. Things not acheiveable with traditional optics technologies.

Interestingly, there has lately been much talk about how metamaterials might also possibly allow for the often used in science fiction, and long on the wish list of our friends at . Not exactly THAT invisibility cloak, but researchers at have been able to use the materials to hide an object from being detected by microwave sensors. That is still incredibly cool, and still of great value to a wide array of military technologies. It also makes me think of the worn by the characters in Philip K. Dick’s .

Only until recently, metamaterials were used to modify light. Researches have begun to investigate their ability to modify sound, another form of wave energy, their thinking being that an acoustic application of these materials would do the same for sound as it does for light. If acoustic metamaterials really can do the same for sound as they do for light, that could mean better lenses for ultrasound machines, and perhaps even cloaks that can hide submarines from sonar. I am guessing that is on DARPA’s wish list as well.