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Meaningful innovation

The value of workshop superheroes

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Superhero activity example

This is a cross-post from the Indigenous Digital Excellence “backstage” blog.

Some time ago I came across an idea/method from Adaptive Path that the authors dubbed Design a superhero. In that blog post, Leah Buley outlines the method and how she’d had some success using the method in the context of user interviews as a fun and engaging way to gather user requirements.

I really liked the idea and felt that the method may also have utility in a workshop context as an introductory activity. I’ve since had the opportunity to test that theory in a number of workshops (with some minor variation from Leah’s original description) and have found it very effective in this context.

So what have we learnt about using the method in a workshop context?

The basic setup of the activity is to set aside sufficient time for 3–5 mins up front (I’ve found that 3 mins is usually sufficient—sometimes 5 mins can actually be too long) and 1 minute per participant for reporting back to the group. Outline the instructions (mostly as per Leah’s description) and encourage people to represent their ideas however they’d like—draw, write down, etc. and that “stick figures are fine”. Encourage participants to give their hero a name. Once the the 3 mins is up, each participant individual introduces their superhero to the group.

Providing a template to fill out is also important—a blank piece of paper is simply too daunting for most participants. Leah’s post provides a template—we came up with our own cartoon figure “nudie” pictured above. That’s part of the fun/personalisation of the activity IMO! I’d recommend that the template not be too polished, lest you run the risk of intimidating participants (as they’ll think their representation has to be polished to).

Some of the tips we’ve come up with when adapting the exercise:

  • Sometimes the topic under discussion doesn’t immediately lend itself to the framing Leah outlines in her original post. For example, if you are doing a social marketing campaign, or designing a social innovation, the “superhero of … that overcomes things that frustrate …” positioning of the exercise needs a little adjustment. For example, we used this method in a recent workshop on the topic of Indigenous Digital Excellence (IndigenousDX). Our framing was: “You are designing a superhero that has secret weapons and super-powers that make it possible for them to cause IndigenousDX flourish across the nation.” The difference is subtle, but necessary for the instruction to make sense in this context.
  • I’ve found it’s important to emphasise that you are designing “weapons and superpowers”. Not doing so can result in losing a lot of the creative spark of the exercise (i.e. you end up with just a list of attributes or values—which is still useful, but not as entertaining nor insightful).

So what have we found works well?

  • It’s fun! People really get into it.
  • It’s (relatively) fast. Allowing about 3–5 mins up-front, and 1 min per person means you can do a reasonable size group (e.g. 12 participants) within 15–20 mins.
  • It works equally well with people who know each other as it does with a group that doesn’t.
  • It gets people out of their heads and into the session. Like all good startup/introduction activities it creates a positive energy, sets the scene for other activities throughout the session (i.e. this is NOT your average meeting), creates a safe space for exploration, and encourages a more creative mindset.
  • It can be a great way to get people to introduce themselves. At a basic level, you can ask that participants say their name and position before they introduce their superhero to the group. But more creatively, you can ask them to further engage by either describing which one of their superhero’s powers would they love to have. Or to describe what “superpower” they bring to the project etc.
  • It’s topically relevant. I’m not a fan of introductory activities that have little or no contribution to the core purpose/intent of the session. At its best, this exercise can provide useful insights into what people value in relation to the project/topic of the workshop.
  • Depending on the circumstance, it can also provide hints about potential biases and “agendas”—i.e. how participants perceive the problem space and what points of view they bring to the session. This can be really invaluable for both facilitation and in follow-up workshop analysis.
  • It can provide valuable insights for a facilitator about individual and group dynamics. You learn who’s visual, who’s verbal, who’s text leaning. You learn who feels they’re “uncreative” and who has confidence in their creative abilities. etc.

As an example of this last point—in one workshop I was facilitating (some time ago now) I was forewarned by the project champion that a few of the participants were a bit conservative and may not respond well to some of the creative activities we had planned. When those participants did this exercise, however, they proved to be the most visual and creative in the participant group. Conversely, some of the folks that were expected to be more creative were actually somewhat subdued and staid in their responses. This helped tremendously in channeling the different energies and strengths of participants to shape a successful workshop outcome.

Anyways—I hope that you might find value in using this method in your own workshop sessions. Let us know if you use the method and how it goes/what you learned…

Alex Laskey at TED

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In a number of my workshops and presentations I’ve used the example of some research into the power of harnessing social norms to drive energy efficiency. And also how these same norms can have unexpected rebound effects. In preparation of a workshop I’m running in a few weeks’ time I came across Alex Laskey’s fantastic talk on the subject. Well worth a watch—he does a fantastic job of explaining how it all works and what they’ve found.

Reflections on the IDEA Summit

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This time last week I was deeply engrossed in the IDEA Summit, which was a gathering of people exploring what “indigenous digital excellence” means.

I was privileged to be one of the co-facilitators for the sessions, and had the opportunity to briefly present on the concept of “design thinking”. Hopefully I did the topic justice in such a short timeframe (15 mins)! My presentation is embedded below, or you can download a PDF of the presentation with my associated speaker notes (PDF 3.9MB).

The event, which ran over 2 days, was a really inspiring experience to participate in. The atmosphere was awesome, in no small part due to Rhianna Patrick’s “MC” role.

The event culminated in a presentation of 5 ideas explored by the participants to a broader audience of invited guests. The 5 ideas emerged from exploration of a number of key themes that emerged early in the Summit around self-determination, appropriate technology, sustainability (for communities to manage and continue initiatives beyond the initial “seed”), mobile, and cultural transmission.

Opportunities identified by participants related to mobile applications for collaboration and finding kin, to business concepts that protect indigenous knowledge, an indigenous-centric search engine, to an initiative providing some innovative twists on mobile phone recycling programs.

The output was inspiring, as was the process. It was amazing (on a personal level) to hear how the process employed—a co-design process in the design thinking/service design vein—had such an impact on participants, both in terms of the Summit itself, but beyond. A part of this was the valuable connections between individuals across the two days and the sense of solidarity behind the initiative.

An exciting development during the Summit was the announcement of substantial support from the Telstra Foundation to the NCIE to continue and develop the ideas that emerged through the Summit. I’ve been impressed with the Foundation’s openness to co-design methods, of which the Summit was a part, in terms of developing the “Indigenous Digital Excellence Agenda”. And from all reports the Summit has played a tremendously positive role in this regard.

Kudos to team at NCIE (especially Mickey and Maddie) for such an inspiring first step. Given the Summit’s success, I’m really looking forward to the momentum behind the “mini-movement” the Summit was intended to engender growing in the coming months and years.

P.S. some great photos of proceedings have been posted on Facebook. Seems all of the speakers like to use their hands to talk! And despite appearances to the contrary, I wasn’t angry in my talk… :\

What will replace A Better Place?

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A Better Place battery swap station

I was disappointed to learn about the liquidation of electric car infrastructure provider A Better Place earlier today.

I really admired Shai Agassi’s vision for this business, and have highlighted it as a great example of both social innovation/shared value (business with a social/environmental benefit at its heart) and design thinking (replicating the convenience/experience of a service station for the electric vehicle age) in presentations and workshops that I’ve facilitated. Naysayers will no doubt latch on to this event as reasoning for a) why social innovation/shared value doesn’t work and/or b) why electric vehicles are not going to succeed (case in point).

They externalised and amortised one of the key drivers of higher costs of electric cars (commentary I’ve seen puts the battery at about 20–30% of the cost of the vehicle). The model also presented real business incentives to improve longevity and management of battery technology waste due to the side-effects of product service systems. Batteries could be more easily rolled out to customers over time as well, as new technology came to market without modification to the vehicle.

I also admired the multi-faceted nature of the business—which proposed not only technology for battery swapping, but also more general charging infrastructure. I saw an interview with Agassi where he described A Better Place not as a charging or battery company, but as an energy company. They saw the potential for electric cars playing a significant role in smart grid infrastructure—a vision much broader than just cars.

The article linked at the outset of this post doesn’t go into a lot of detail, other than to suggest public uptake of electric vehicles was slower than anticipated, and gaining automotive supplier support was a key barrier.

It’s perhaps ironic that a company set up to remove one of the key barriers to electric vehicle sales—the “range anxiety” issue—was unable to get sufficient support from automotive manufactures, who report lower-than-expected uptake of electric vehicles as a reason not to invest more. Seems like a classic chicken and egg conundrum, that A Better Place was looking to solve and externalise for the manufacturers. Given only one vehicle manufacturer—Nissan Renault—got behind the initiative, it does beg the question just how serious car companies are about really advancing this market. That said, even leader Tesla Motors hadn’t gotten behind the approach, as far as I know, and they certainly can’t be accused of not promoting/supporting an electric vehicle future. (I would be especially interested in Tesla’s comment/take on A Better Place’s closure.)

I suspect the biggest problem was simply trying to launch too early to support an immature industry. That is to say they were simply ahead of their time. Electric vehicle technology is in its relative infancy, and standards and technologies are evolving rapidly. I suspect it was difficult to get manufacturers to commit to a standard given the many different configurations and challenges related to A Better Place’s approach. Battery technology, in particular, is rapidly evolving.

And placement of batteries within a floor-pan is not as simple as finding a place for a petrol tank. For example, some manufacturers have layered them across the floor-pan. Others have placed them behind the seat. Others, still, have them placed in various locations across the vehicle to balance weight and driving dynamics.

I’ve not had a moment to review further commentary on the closure, so I’ll be interested to learn more in the coming weeks/months as more is written about A Better Place’s experience, as no doubt will happen. I’d love to read comment from those close to the project, with the benefit of a little distance in time, what lessons were learned.

I have said in the past I don’t think hydrogen fuel cells are coming any time soon (I see this as a bit of a red herring—a future that will perpetually “just around the corner” to give manufacturers and excuse for not backing alternatives). And while battery technology is improving at a rapid clip, it will be some time before charge times reduce to minutes, instead of hours. Short of a miracle breakthrough (which is a potential, but still not something we can “bank” on). Will charge time become a non-issue as range increases? I don’t think it will—certainly not in the public’s perception.

So something like A Better Place will be needed if electric vehicles are to achieve widespread up-take in a non-urban/fleet environment, even in the short term. Given A Better Place’s experience, I’m wondering what new venture/approach will step up to take its place?

What is “Digital Excellence”?

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This is a cross-post from the Indigenous Digital Excellence site, part of the ongoing conversation in the lead up to the IDEA Summit.

I’m feeling really excited to have been invited to co-facilitate one of the groups at the up-coming IDEA Summit. I feel it’s a real privilege to be part of this process.

As I’ve been preparing for the Summit, I’ve been giving some thought to “What does Indigenous Digital Excellence mean?”. My first stab at an answer (from my personal perspective) is on the IDEA website:

The highly personal and “always available” nature of digital technologies, including social media, present significant promise in supporting positive personal and social change in a wide variety of contexts. To me, “Indigenous Digital Excellence” means empowering and supporting young Indigenous people to find their own creative solutions to their distinct challenges, using digital technologies as a foundation. I believe that these solutions will be far more powerful and creative than anything I could/would come up with.

Prompted by Summit co-facilitator Leanne Townsend, I started to think about this question in my own sphere. That is, as a (largely) digitally-based professional, what do I consider “digital excellence” to mean? That is to say, if I was to look around at my peers in my own personal network and ask “what does digital excellence look like?”, I’d suggest the following (probably incomplete) list:

  • Has pragmatic familiarity with a wide variety of digital devices, software tools, and spaces.
  • Actively participates in online social networks, professionally and/or personally.
  • Leverages digital technologies effectively in achieving their own personal goals.
  • Is able to make informed judgements about what tools are right for their particular requirements/circumstance.
  • Has confidence in getting up to speed with (evaluating, understanding and adapting to) new digital technologies quickly as needed.
  • Is not overwhelmed by it all.
  • Maintains a healthy relationship to digital technologies so that they are appropriately integrated into real-life interactions—i.e. not addicted to checking emails at every available moment. Chooses when “going dark” is appropriate and needed to maintain personal space and balance.
  • Is aware of, and has sufficient confidence and support in mitigating, the various risks and dangers inherent in online interactions—such as personal security, handling bullying, what’s appropriate in public vs. private vs. professional contexts.
  • Is aware of the broader socio-technical and socio-economic implications of digital technologies. That is, the broader impacts and influence these technologies are having on society at large.

I’ve just written that list off the top of my head, but it’s interesting to note that only a couple are related to the technology themselves. Most are personal attributes in how someone approaches technology. This, I think, is important.

Extending from this then, I’m very interested in whether or not Indigenous Digital Excellence is different from the above? Are there unique challenges within the Indigenous community that would influence this list? I’m personally not sure, but I’m very interested in hearing from others about their thoughts…

Bike smart with Nau

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I’ve been a fan of Nau clothing since their launch and have watched closely as they went through closure, were bought out, and have started to rise again.

Nau make stylish active wear. It’s not hard to notice that more recently they have made cycling culture a focus. Their latest email newsletter is one example.

I think this approach is really smart. They have a clear niche they’re focusing on, but that niche has much wider-spread appeal to the urban fashion set. That is to say, there are many folks that aren’t part of cycling culture that still admire and appreciate the “hipsters on fixies” as part of their guide to style and fashion.

When thinking about social innovation and sustainable business (which Nau is—they follow the cradle-to-cradle principles of “waste = food”) this is very important. To not target only on the sustainability minded, but to find a strong niche that is aligned with those sustainability values. This is part of the advice from our case study on Haul—that it was the uniqueness of the product that was the (primary) selling point, not sustainability features.

In any case, I’m excited by Nau’s prospects and direction, and am even more excited by my recent discovery that they now ship internationally :) Just a matter of time before one of these ends up in my wardrobe…

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  • Published: May 14th, 2013
  • Category: Design
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A brand is like a wardrobe…

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Having been involved in the development/management of a few brands, when I saw this quote from Michael Hendrix from IDEO, I just had to share:

Hendrix put the challenge to me metaphorically, with the firm represented by a person with a wardrobe full of outfits. “There’s you, the person, and you have your full identity in yourself,” he says. “But you know contextually when to wear certain things. You might wear one thing to a funeral, you might wear one thing for a Saturday night. You understand those contexts. And those never change your identity, so to speak, but they do start to communicate some kind of intent. And that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now. How do you create some kind of contextual mirror to create intent.”

This is so fitting (’scuse the pun) and deeply reflects my thinking and approach to branding. A brand is not just about the visual identity. It’s a system of values that are applied in a variety of contexts. This applies to tone of voice for copy as well, just as strongly (which, of course, is also a reflection of the brand). It’s great to have such a nice succinct analogy to call upon in explaining the concept…

I also love this idea of a “responsive identity”:

Imagine it’s 15 years in the future, and you’re wearing Google Glass 3.0. The spectacles have matured far beyond their awkward picture-in-picture beginnings, now offering something much closer to true augmented reality. It’s a strange new hybrid world. You glance at a subway station and see an overlay of how long until the next train arrives. You look at a dog, wonder what type it is, and a voice in your ear identifies it as a Thai Ridgeback. Of course, commerce has kept apace. A window display at Macy’s comes to life when you look in its direction; a virtual billboard on top of the Starbucks facade rotates through a half dozen drink specials.

This future, or one like it, isn’t hard to fathom. But here’s something that’s a bit harder to pin down: What does the logo on that Starbucks look like?

That’s one of the things Hendrix hopes this project will get his designers to start considering. “We haven’t had to think about responsive identities,” he says. “We haven’t had to think about time or space. And I think those will all become more important dimensions.”

Lifehacking with Scrum

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I’ve often spoken about the benefits of iterative design, and in particular agile management approaches, such as Scrum. Most of my experience with Scrum is as a software development approach (e.g. building web applications), but I’ve always seen the value in the methodology outside of this sphere, just rarely had the opportunity to work with it in this way (due to the nature of our engagement with clients).

Bruce Feiler does a terrific job of explaining the basics and benefits of a scrum approach outside the traditional software realm in Agile programming – for your family:

I love this “life hacking” idea—and love the anecdotes relating to the benefits that Bruce highlights in his talk. I’ve recently started to use this approach to manage a non-software team, and we have already started to see benefits. Multiple members of the team have commented how the extra visibility is really valuable. I’m also seeing benefits (as team leader) in terms of visibility, but especially collaborative prioritisation.

More about Scrum

If you’re interested in finding out more about Scrum as a methodology, I have found Softhouse’s Scrum in 5 minutes primer a very helpful introductory guide (HT @missnae) It’s a slightly annoying download process, but one of the better guides that literally takes 5 mins to get through.

The Interaction Consortium and Zumio adapted this diagram from Boehm, Barry, and Richard Turner (2005. Management challenges to implementing agile processes in traditional development organizations. IEEE Software 22 (5 (September/October 2005)) to visually explain the basic gist of Scrum.

Illustration of Scrum process

Case study: GoGet CarShare

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This post is part of a series outlining my learnings from interviews with a number of small and medium businesses exploring how they have benefited from a shared value approach. These case studies support a paper I wrote exploring strategic CSR (PDF 1.3MB). This case study is based on an interview undertaken in 2012 by Allison Heller, who at the time of publishing is Social Strategy Advisor for the City of Sydney.

The distinctive orange side mirrors of GoGet CarShare cars are an increasingly familiar sight across Sydney’s urban neighbourhoods, along with those in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

GoGet CarShare car.  Image: neeravbhatt @ Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/neeravbhatt/8653599067/

GoGet CarShare car. Image: neeravbhatt @ Flickr

Australians are notoriously wedded to their private vehicles. But attitudes to car ownership are shifting in inner city areas when good alternatives are available. A lack of private parking spaces in new developments, local government planning controls supporting reduction in private parking, and residents’ desire to not own a car are all driving this shift.

GoGet has both benefited from and actively supported this zeitgeist to establish and grow a highly successful car share business. The firm’s marketing is based on simple, common sense, rather than an overtly ‘green’ message. The appeal of the service is neatly captured in just a handful of paragraphs on the company’s website:

GoGet gives you all the benefits of a car—without the hassle and expense of owning one! As a member, you have access to a network of new cars parked locally which saves you time and money and lets you get more out of life…

GoGet is perfect for people who don’t need a car everyday or want to get rid of that second car. It’s also perfect for businesses or organisations that get the benefits of having a car fleet without the costs. [1]

GoGet CarShare is more convenient than car rental, cheaper than car ownership and a great way to help the environment. Just book any car online or over the phone, by the hour or by the day. Then, take a short walk to the car, unlock it using your smart card, jump in, drive and bring it back to the same spot when you’re done.

Each month you get an itemised invoice, much like a phone bill. What you don’t get are mechanical, insurance and registration costs, cleaning hassles and everything else that goes with owning a car. [2]

Census data for 2011 from City of Sydney, where the firm’s headquarters is based, shows a strong decline in household car ownership and declining figures for car-based journeys to work—a clear boon to GoGet’s business model. But it’s fair to say that GoGet co-founders Bruce Jeffreys and Nick Lowe were well ahead of the curve when established the company back in 2003.

Straight-talking Bruce, who hails from a marketing background, says the business model just made sense:

Aristotle talked about utility being from use, not from ownership. It’s about taking the surfboard out and gaining enjoyment value from surfing on the wave, not from owning and looking at the surfboard. It’s about being on the wave.

The strong demand for the firm’s product is growing exponentially, supported by property development trends and local government policies. Supporting City of Sydney Council’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 Strategy, for example, is a car sharing policy targeting uptake of car sharing to 10% of all households by 2016.

The firm had humble beginnings, grounded in the duo’s inner-western Sydney community ties. Starting with three cars in Newtown and 12 founding members, the business has grown organically to have 800 cars, 18,000 members and 22 employees in 2012. GoGet is now one of the largest car share companies in the world, according to Bruce, and the fastest growing in the English-speaking world.

This success is not only attributable to wider social and political trends, but to the firm’s common sense and ethical approach to business. In this sense, Bruce summarises GoGet’s brand differentiators as:

  • Local;
  • Authentic: for example “if we take a marketing photo of a person for a brochure, it’s a real person, not a model from an agency”—early advertisements featured Jeffreys and his sister, for example, and
  • Connected: internet/networked/engaged.

Starting small and growing organically has had advantages in developing GoGet’s market position. Bruce explains:

A large corporate is by nature global, superficial and disconnected. In terms of trust and values, these things are key. This is how we view our model, brand and success, from a brand differentiation point of view. It’s not rocket science.

It was a sustainable model from the start in relation to business finances. The business has grown organically without the need for external funding. We will continue to grow organically—in Sydney and Melbourne we are leading the market, and we’re interested in other Australian cities.

At the outset, the GoGet co-founders rooted their business decisions in market research. They saw the potential for car sharing through their community’s living patterns.

Our initial market research involved surveying 450 people in Newtown in one day, at the Newtown Festival. The survey was not about car sharing per se. We asked them about their transport patterns—Did they have a car they hardly used?

This was really important [to the foundation of the business]: the most important thing with any business is direct market research. You have to establish your first customers.

Now GoGet is going from strength to strength, Bruce provides a refreshingly straightforward take on the highlights so far.

There have been no real watershed moments. It’s about slogging away day by day. … The big highlight for me personally was the day that me and Nick [Lowe] didn’t have to be on call 24 hours [a day]—we could get a good night’s sleep. Also, putting in the place management team—one that we can trust, that’s delivering.

Like many small business owners, Bruce sees authenticity in relationships with suppliers is critical:

We look for straight-talking, ethical suppliers. Essentially, people we like dealing with.

Sustainability for GoGet is integral to our approach. It’s integral to how we do things; not an add-on. So if a supplier has sustainability as an add-on, it has no value for us. We are only interested in those that do it and get it. We’re just not interested in, for example, a supplier with a green standard as a mask.

The question is: do they fit? We need to discern that, for example, by looking at how a supplier approaches you. You want to have an honest and straightforward relationship with someone who can communicate well. So that when you need to have a discussion, for example, about whether something is too expensive, you’re not dealing with a defensive attitude.

He stresses that sustainability must be a fundamental value for a successful business today—but one that is inherent, beyond the promotional:

A business promoting itself as ‘sustainable’ is a bit like a business saying ‘I believe in world peace,’ when what they do is make pizzas.

It’s about embedding sustainability in what you do on a day-to-day basis, rather than a culture of window dressing. Resilience comes from aligning your values with what you do. And if you aren’t already doing it [i.e. sustainability practices] then what’s stopping you?

As for the concepts of shared value and collaborative consumption, Bruces shared a similar sentiment:

Well a lot of [shared value] is quite common sense. For example, GoGet is about wanting to lessen our impact on the ground, and you can’t do that unless these values are enshrined in local communities.

There is a lot of talk among large corporates of localisation and shared value etc. But it has to be in [the firm’s] DNA.

Bruce is keen to stress that GoGet’s fundamental business model and drivers, along with the day-to-day challenges it faces, are really no different to any other business.

It’s about marketing—to communicate simply what we do; communication; delivery of a seamless service that uses a lot of technology. For GoGet, there is incredible complexity to the system that operates in the background. In the foreground, we have to deliver on the promise of a seamless service. We take on the pressure of the systems; we take care of things so that members just have the driving experience.

It’s about process; systematising; training; feedback mechanisms. There is no special formula. We’re very focused on our market segment. We aim to continuously improve and refine production. We never stand still.

Technology has facilitated a growth in collaborative consumption, which Bruce notes is in itself not a new concept:

The internet is a major enabler of sharing, of cars for example—this market was ready to be opened up, and it’s an exciting time. … [Collaborative consumption] has always been there. Historically, we’re currently going through a whacky period, when Chinese-made things are so cheap, we’ve filled our workplaces and homes with stuff we rarely use.

He adds:

Collaborative consumption to me never went away, but often there was no alternative to owning things. Now you have a choice about owning things, [alternatives to] buying something … expensive that you don’t use much, or buying a cheap thing that you will throw out.

Examining GoGet’s path to success demonstrates a reconception of products and services, applying what Vargo and Lusch term as “service dominant logic” (more on S-D logic: 1, 2) to deliver the utility value of a product with a radical reduction in the drawbacks—social, economic and environmental—of the traditional ownership model.

GoGet represents a Product Service System, a concept pioneered by Oksana Mont among others and highlighted by Rachel Botsman in What’s mine is yours: The rise of collaborative consumption. Such systems place a greater emphasis on the longevity and servicability of the products being produced and provided to users, and rely on and encourage stronger relationships with suppliers. They also enable the recouping of higher production costs of goods such as electric vehicles through greater operational efficiency.

The close community ties highlighted by Bruce in our interview extend to working closely with local governance bodies (such as councils) to provide car share spots and other infrastructure. This in turn helps strengthen local clusters where such shared services are highly valued in attracting talent. All in all, GoGet provides a terrific example of the three pillars of shared value as outlined by Porter and Kramer working synergistically to create business and societal prosperity.

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  • Published: Apr 4th, 2013
  • Category: Design
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The value of small prototypes

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I was recently chatting with my friend Lopa about a variety of things social innovation-y, and the topic turned to prototyping.

One of the things that came up is that it can be easy to think that prototypes need to be a lot more than they actually need to be. That is, it can be just as valuable to prototype small pieces of the puzzle as you go, rather than thinking that you have to prototype an entire service, or complex parts of a web application etc.

As I was thinking about this on the train, I caught up on some episodes of Kevin Rose’s excellent Foundation series. In her interview, the founder of Smitten Ice Cream Robyn Sue Fisher talks about prototyping a number of times in the interview (especially in relation to her core product). But what interested me most was how she used a food cart to get her service up and running (at about 28 mins and 45 secs in):

I’ve benefited from this principle as I work through the Seasonal Saturday concept. It seems like quite a simple thing “a seasonal meal once a month”. While I’ve got a lot of thoughts about what we could do with the initiative, I felt it was important just to start doing it, as I knew things would pop up. So we bootstrapped a simple blog and invited a bunch of people to submit their recipes (one per month).

This prototype is a long way from what we’re aiming for, but prototyping early has already helped a lot in working out the logistics and some of the barriers and challenges participants might face. Like, what information do we need to include with a recipe? Are there specific attributes to recipes that we need to consider? What happens if I want to participate, but can’t do that recipe (i.e. I don’t have a slow cooker)? These may seem trivial, but as we are hoping to encourage/enable behaviour change, understanding (and addressing) these barriers where possible is important.

As a tutor in the Design Research Training unit at UWS I also saw the power of prototyping first hand. Students often came up with grand ideas and some couldn’t see, at first, how they could prototype it because they were jumping ahead to their bigger vision. Others were able to break their project down into smaller parts which they then prototyped. These students tended to do better overall with their projects, and all of them learnt a lot from this process.

It’s important, of course, to recognise the limitations and changed context of a smaller prototype. But following the lean/agile approach of prototyping early and often is a great way to help ensure that a project has the greatest chance of success.