February 2014 Archives

T.S. Eliot had his "social function of poetry" and we have social media - YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. etc.

Could it be that what we celebrate as the art of our times is not Art at all? If so, What is Art? 

At best, our culture has relegated Art to the dubious field of "entertainment" - hijacked from its true purpose, left to serve as a decoration on the public walls of high society museums and the private walls of wealthy collectors. At best, art is fashion.

Wait, wait, wait.

John Seely Brown's latest newsletter takes us to task by raising an important point: 

"Artists are not included in our debate on how we build the economy for the future. They're excluded in our nation's emphasis on innovation which has been left to the STEM crowd. We're not thinking about designing for emergence. Innovation is about seeing the world differently. Who is better at helping us see the world differently than the artists?"

Why is this? I can think of three reasons:

1) The "art" made by "artists" is irrelevant

2) The "artists" are not Artists

3) Art is generally devalued in a society polarized by Science, Fashion, and Politics

Alright, I'm being a bit silly, but here is someone who's not:  Ben Davis and his 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (h/t Doug Smith) serve as both an indictment and a wake-up call for artists everywhere. Have a look at this excerpt:

2.0 Today, the ruling class, which is capitalist, dominates the sphere of the visual arts

2.1 It is part of the definition of a ruling class that it controls the material resources of society 

2.2 The ruling ideologies, which serve to reproduce this material situation, also represent the interests of the ruling class

2.3 The dominant values given to art, therefore, will be ones that serve the interests of the current ruling class

2.4 Concretely, within the sphere of the contemporary visual arts, the agents whose interests determine the dominant values of art are: large corporations, including auction houses and corporate collectors; art investors, private collectors and patrons; trustees and administrators of large cultural institutions and universities

2.5 One role for art, therefore, is as a luxury good, whose superior craftsmanship or intellectual prestige indicates superior social status

2.6 Another role for art is to serve as financial instrument or tradable repository of value

2.7 Another role for art is as sign of "giving back" to the community, to whitewash ill-gotten gains

2.8 Another role for art is symbolic escape valve for radical impulses, to serve as a place to isolate and contain social energy that runs counter to the dominant ideology

2.9 A final role for art is the self-replication of ruling-class ideology about art itself--the dominant values given to art serve not only to enact ruling-class values directly, but also to subjugate, within the sphere of the arts, other possible values of art

OK. But why are artists banished from the Republic? 

One can argue (via Ben Franklin) that the last artist was Jesus and before him Socrates. I'd add folks like Gandhi, Malcolm X, Mandela, Marley... The artist sees differently. Not just paintings on a wall, but society itself. Who paints our vision for society today? Lady Gaga or our lobbyists?

Walker Percy saw the artist (or writer) as a canary in the coal mine. The artist as prophet. But we are deaf to the canary. We've banned our artists from society - not by muzzling them with threats and jail time, but by turning them into designers of consumer and fashion goods.  

For the first time in history, we've made art useful as a financial commodity- and killed it in the process.

Meanwhile, somewhere, hidden from the lights of Sotheby's and Christie's, art is still being made.

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Here's a new and important book that helps us make sense of the changing business landscape. It's Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation by Larry Downes and Paul Nunes (from Accenture) - and it describes how so many businesses are disrupted overnight by big-bang innovations that come out of nowhere.  The insights presented by the book add new perspectives to the work on disruptive innovation by Clayton Christensen and gang. 

According to the authors, the big-bang disrupters may not even see you as competition. They're not sizing up your product line and figuring out ways to offer slightly better price or performance with hopes of gaining a short-term advantage. 


EXAMPLES OF BIG BANG INNOVATION

One of the examples is the GPS system. Do you even remember Garmin, or TomTom or Magellan?  They were all disrupted by the smartphone - with Google Maps leading the way.

And the smartphone isn't done yet. It has wiped out the wrist watch industry, threatens the digital camera market, the video camcorder market, and even the music and TV industries. 

Other examples from the book include:

CampusBookRentals and Khan Academy in education, Pandora and Spotify in radio and recorded music, Skype and FaceTime in voice and video calling, and Square in mobile credit-card processing. These offerings' lightning-fast adoption is a function of near-perfect market information. Wherever customers are, mobile devices let them search a wide range of specialized data sources--including online sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and other free databases of user-generated reviews--to find the best price and quality and the next new thing.

What's more, big-bang disruptions go far beyond information-based goods and services. Restaurants, for example, now depend on online reservations, customer-generated reviews, e-coupons, and location-based services to drive business.


THE SHARK-FIN PRODUCT ADOPTION CURVE

The traditional product development cycle has been radically compressed:

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What this "shark-fin" curve means is that incumbents don't have time to catch up. The crossing-the-chasm story is over.  New products are perfected with a few trial users and then are embraced quickly by the vast majority of the market!

Here are some ways in which the world has changed:

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TRUTH TELLERS

The book introduces us to the folks known as truth tellers. These are industry experts with profound insights into new technologies and customer behaviors, who can predict earlier than anyone else when small tremors signal imminent earthquakes. Often, they are people who spend their careers working in the industry, and share a unique passion for its mission, its products and its customers. My term for these guys is thought-leaders, or if you want to be real - they're the ubernerds.

Truth tellers are often eccentric and difficult to manage (no, really?!). They may be found outside your organization--they may even be customers. Learning to find them is hard. Learning to listen to them is even harder.


THE 12 RULES OF BIG BANG DISRUPTION

Another reason to buy this book is the neat methodology they've come up with to introduce this Big-Band Disruption mindset into your company:  

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I personally don't think our Fortune 100 companies can adopt this sort of thinking very easily, so I'm looking for a lot of them to get dinged severely by the Big-Bang Disrupters, some of which will come to us from India and China.

Still, the framework they present is compelling - especially the part about leaving the market before you get disrupted in the end.


THE POWER OF ECOSYSTEMS

Finally, one of the key elements of Big Bang Disruption is the replacement of the traditional supply chain by dynamic, ever-shifting ecosystems. Again, the culture of most traditional institutions can't embrace openness or collaboration. I've had some experience in that department.

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Keep this in mind; I'll be back very soon with a blog post on ecosystem strategy.

One of the reasons why Houston will never get a shot at hosting the Olympics (not that we want it, at this point) is because we don’t have a world-class transportation system. So while Houston is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the US, we’re not even close when it comes to public transportation (can you believe we’re behind Dallas?). According to the 2010 U.S. Census, we have a population of over 2.1 million people and a land area of 599.6 square miles (and that’s not counting the suburbs). 

Houston is second only to New York when it comes to resident Fortune 500 companies.

So what’s the problem? Why doesn’t Houston have a world class transit system at this point in its history? And what can be done?

The traditional finger-pointing is political. Suburban taxpayers who supported referendums in 2003 and 2012 have demonstrated a desire for development, only to have officials shortchange them.  The latest in line is John Culberson, but to be fair, past opposition has come from both sides of the political aisle.

And who is behind these politicians?  You don’t have to look very far to see that Houston is an energy town - in fact it’s the “energy capital” of the world.  Our energy companies are not interested in a world class transit system;  for them, seems like widening the freeways is the only solution. This lack of civic leadership reflects poorly on our city and is going to be a burden going forward. Those Fortune 500 companies that call Houston home will find a better place to live.

To be clear: between the lack of leadership from business and the misleadership of our elected officials, Houston has a third rate transit system, used by less than 3% of the population.

There is no long-term plan in place. That, in itself, speaks to the magnitude of the problem.  Furthermore, any plan we do get is probably going to be a constrained plan that does nothing to address the real challenge.

What can be done? 

How can we bring our politicians and business leaders together? Or is Houston doomed to remain a third-class city when it comes to mass transit?

The reason I wrote this blog post was to highlight a third way. Let’s look at an example from a country and place where things are a lot harder than Houston. Delhi - the capital of India - is a city with 9.9 million, with horrible infrastructure problems.   Over the years, like Houston, no real attempt was made to build an infrastructure equal to the needs of the citizens.

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Then, in October 1998, ground was broken on a comprehensive metro system that had been talked about for over three decades. Today, the Delhi Metro is the world’s thirteenth largest metro system in terms of length. The network consists of six lines with a total length of 189.63 kilometres (117.83 mi) with 142 stations, of which 35 are underground, five are at-grade, and the rest are elevated. All stations have escalators, elevators, and tactile tiles to guide the visually impaired from station entrances to trains. It has a combination of elevated, at-grade, and underground lines, and uses both broad gauge and standard gauge rolling stock.

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What can Houston learn from Delhi?  At least three things:

1) build a METRO system worth having: don’t build a system that just clogs up already busy lanes to shuttle folks from one business hub to another.  Focus on the real issue: mass transit, specially the mass part.  We should aim for getting around 20-30% of our citizens on the METRO during rush hour, and that will only happen if we focus on real solutions.

2) use the right-of-way on existing freeways: the genius of the Delhi rail line is that it is elevated and runs along the main highways already in place. In Houston, this would mean our HOV lanes would be turned into METRO lines - elevated, above the traffic. Even the stations are elevated; which sounds weird, but actually it works very well. The image below is a METROstop along the line - well above the freeway:

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3) mass transit is too important to be left to METRO alone: in Delhi, and you have to appreciate the extent of corruption in public office to understand this, a special purpose organization was formed called the DMRC.  This cross-agency team was vested with great autonomy and powers to execute the gigantic project. In Calcutta where they did not have such a cross-agency team, the Kolkata Metro was badly delayed and 12 times over budget due to “political meddling, technical problems and bureaucratic delays.” The first phase of the Delhi Metro project was completed in 2006, on budget and almost three years ahead of schedule, an achievement described by Business Week as “nothing short of a miracle”.

So can miracles happen in Houston?  They can, if only our politicians and METRO folks would actually share some values - like putting aside their petty interests for the good of the city. I’m not holding my breath.  Hey, maybe we can build some more public funded sports arenas; those projects seem to have no problem getting funded!

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